I’ll be the first to admit I’m absolutely the least qualified person to review a sports film. It’s not generally my genre of choice. Frankly I don’t follow sports at all, and they’ve just never really interested me. I was — like many of our readers — more into comics and video games and such growing up. But in being close-minded, one sometimes forgets that sports movies aren’t usually actually about sports. They’re about the human spirit and will. They are about people overcoming challenges to achieve something greater than they ever believed themselves capable of. When you think about it, it’s not any different from your average Captain America movie at the end of the day. The difference more times than not, however, is the heroes are actually real. And in this case, all of the above can be easily applied to the protagonist of the true-story behind Safety, Ray McElrathbey.
In 2006, a freshman student in Clemson University, Ray McElrathbey had his life abruptly interrupted when his mother Tonya was admitted to rehab for several months. Ray, a safety for the Clemson University Football team, who was admitted to Clemson on scholarship, made the decision to care for his little brother, Fahmarr, on top of maintaining the grades that would keep him at school, and securing a successful position on his football team, all while his mother was away. What ended up following was an inspiring story about persistence, hard work, family, and the will to do whatever it takes to overcome the challenges life throws at you; a story Disney felt deserved to be told in the most tasteful, charming way possible. And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
Most, if not all, Disney sports films, going back even 20 years to Remember the Titans, are intended to be inspirational, and Safety is, of course, no different. However, at the end of the day, it accomplishes its goal of inspiring. Ray (played by Jay Reeves) is a relatable person. And the struggles he goes through, and the amount of effort he puts into keeping the plates spinning on every aspect of his life are real, and make you want to work harder in yours. His relationship with Fahmarr (the adorable Thaddeus J. Mixson) is incredibly sweet. Yet he’s not a perfect person either. At times he pushes his brother harder than anyone, causing several of his teammates to comment on the situation, yet he makes no apologies for it. And at the end of the day, that’s what real role models need to do — challenge as well as love.
The film depicts several struggles Ray has to overcome just to keep his brother with him and his family together, from sneaking him around his dorm in a giant laundry bag, to waking up early every day to get Fahmarr to school, to eventually finding off-campus housing and a job to pay the rent. It’s all incredibly admirable, but yet, the film never canonizes Ray either. Director Reginald Hudlin does a really great job of making you understand that this is just real life. And that humanizes Ray and Fahmarr so much.
The film also goes into all of the really touching ways Ray and Fahmarr’s friends, family, and most of all, Ray’s coaches and team support them emotionally and physically as well, from his roommate Daniel (Hunter Sansone), his girlfriend Kaycee (Corinne Foxx), his recruitment coach, Coach Simmons (James Badge Dale), and the rest of his community. But it also goes out of its way to ensure you see Ray does not want him and Fahmarr to become the campus’s charity cases. In fact, the story even gets into how the NCAA restricted for Ray and Fahmarr from getting any sort of community support at the time. This ultimately makes us, the audience, infinitely more sympathetic and admiring of the sacrifices Ray and Fahmarr have to endure to keep their family together. And this feeds into the movie’s ultimate theme of brotherhood; Brotherhood between Ray and Fahmarr, but also Ray and his team. Further credit should be given to the film for also ensuring there’s no definitive right or wrong, hero or villain, etc. in this situation. Through and through it’s simply a film about real-life challenges. Even the closest thing to a bully (Alex A.J. Gardner) in the movie ends up becoming an understandable character, with an admirable sense of loyalty and dedication. This is a testament to the type of movie Safety is really trying to be.
The performances in the movie are good, and the chemistry between Mixson and Reeves is so genuine and sincere. It’s hard to separate the performers from the real-life brother duo, as Reeves genuinely appears to be treating Mixson like a kid brother on the screen. Their comedic and emotional chemistry comes in very handy when the movie is trying to throw a laugh or two at the expense of the brothers’ imperfect relationship. You definitely grow to love the two characters, and their brotherhood. Also turning in great performances are the aforementioned Foxx, Sansone, and Dale. Foxx in particular is an up and coming star to watch out for, playing a very sympathetic, but headstrong female lead, with natural screen presence and also excellent chemistry with Reeves. Theirs is a relationship you absolutely root for.
If there are any flaws in the film, it’s primarily to do with the pacing. At about two hours, the film feels like a slog to go through. I found myself thinking the film was about to end, only to check my watch and realize there was significant poritions of time still left in the movie. Another minor issue could be taken about its forgettability and its lacking rewatch factor. It’s a perfectly fine movie, and a good story, but I’ll probably forget about it in a week, and never watch it again, to be quite frank.
However, I think the biggest issue I need to take with the movie is the treatment of Tonya McElrathbey’s character (played in the film by Amanda Warren). The film paints the character’s substance addition with complete reality, and makes us feel sympathy for the McElrathbeys’ situation. However, it solely focuses on the sacrifices of Ray. Whereas Tonya’s character is 100% the cause of the situation the brothers are forced in, it doesn’t take much time showcasing that she too is a victim of a disease she can’t control. It also doesn’t really emphasize the sacrifices she’s making by staying in rehab to get clean for her family too. And I think going to rehab and staying clean is a feat in and of itself that deserves to be celebrated as well. And I think the film could have done a better job at that too.
Overall though, if you’re looking for a very inspiring, feel-good film to view over the Christmas holiday season, Safety is a well-acted, well-directed, heartwarming feature to check out. You’ll feel for these two brothers and stand in admiration for them and the sacrifices they’ve made to stay together by the end of the movie. And at the end of the day, I think that makes sitting through a sports movie 100% worth it!
Overall Score: B+
Safety starts streaming on Disney+ this Friday, December 11.