Disney certainly loves themselves a heartwarming real life story, don’t they? Over the years the studio has churned out several biopics that have captured the hearts of viewers and with the acquisition of Fox they’ve inherited countless more. But their latest biographical drama feels purely Disney with just the right mix of dramatized realism and inspirational feels that makes you wonder how much of the story is real and how much was sugarcoated to make it worth watching? The film I’m talking about is the new Disney+ biopic “Safety” which chronicles the struggles of Clemson Tigers safety Ray McElrathbey as he tries to juggle college, his athletic career and caring for his little brother. It’s a story that made headlines in the mid-2000s even being featured on Oprah and, yes, it is an inspiring tale that deserves to be told. But with Disney putting its special touch on the drama, is the complexity lost in the shuffle? The easy answer is no. The more honest answer is it’s a mixed bag, but a good mixed bag.
“Safety” follows Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves) as he joins the Clemson Tigers football program and finds juggling studies and athletics to be hard enough as it is, but when he discovers his younger brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has no place to live after his mother re-enters a rehab program Ray takes temporary custody and hides Fahmarr on campus. With help from his teammates, girlfriend and coach, Ray attempts to juggle being a father figure, student and athlete but finds that certain roadblocks may prevent him from being able to do it all at the same time. Truth be told I wasn’t as familiar with this story before watching Disney’s take on it and Ray didn’t move up to the NFL so unless you research it thoroughly it appeared to be a story that’s lost its relevance. However, Disney unsurprisingly squeezes some genuine heart of the narrative taking what could have easily been an over the top schmaltzy sports drama and providing just enough sincerity to offset its clearly dramatized presentation.
“Safety” contains some pretty solid acting and enough sports drama cliches to satisfy any fan of the genre, for better or worse. The fact that it tells the story of an athlete who didn’t make it big also helps. While not all successful sports star movies are bad, many of them earn righteous criticism for glorifying people who are already famous and well know making their individual stories feels less relatable. Ray McElrathbey’s story feels completely relatable because he’s not a superstar or a household name. In this film’s context and in reality he is and was a student and athlete trying to do right by his younger brother. Succeeding in all three of those endeavors by themselves is a difficult task, but trying to do all of it at the same time would be daunting to anyone especially someone in the black community…and yes the film does occasionally delve into that territory especially in one scene where Ray explodes on his coach accusing him of virtue seeking by helping a black athlete. I liked this moment because it allowed the coach to explain to Ray that regardless of his skin color these are challenges everyone faces and accepting help doesn’t make him a failure nor does it make those helping him his enemies. Little moments like this and the believable and somewhat awkward relationship between Ray and Fahmarr add some genuine heart to a pretty simple idea.
“Safety” does what a lot of these films fail to do properly by stretching the concept to feature length without feeling like it’s trying to hard, however that doesn’t mean it’s without its faults. As I said, I’m not as familiar with the real life story so I don’t know what did or didn’t actually happen, but there are story elements that keep “Safety” from rising above its own clichés. Throughout the first half of the film Ray has a rivalry with an upperclassman named Keller (played by real-life footballer Miles Burris) and struggles with an abusive coach at his position. Maybe these things happened in real life, but the film clearly uses them to add drama to Ray’s situation and even eventually ditches these tropes in pretty standard and uninspired fashion. The final act featuring a controversy with the NCAA is proof that these tropes were unneeded to make for a good story focused on Ray’s personal journey. It doesn’t really demonize the authority of college football and offers Ray a great opportunity to show his character. I feel like this is all we needed for us to understand Ray’s evolution as a person with all of the extra stuff being nothing more than fat that should have been cut out.
What I’m trying to say is, “Safety” is a good film. It has some powerful moments, some engaging performances and tells a story worth telling with plenty of tact and understanding for its complexities. However, it also often tries to compliment these complexities with added clichés and dramatic elements, not to mention some subtle but clear pandering, which betrays its initial charm. I would solidly recommend “Safety” as a watchable, inspiring and well-handled sports drama but I wouldn’t call it a terrific film. It tries too hard at times to be the same old sports film that tugs at the heartstrings through music swells and fancy dialogue when I don’t feel it ever needed to be that kind of movie. There are plenty of signs of something more raw and reserved that actually overshadow its more cliché elements. Everything else just feels like they get in the way. My verdict: it’s a pretty good sports flick all the same. Check it out and see for yourself.