Anyone who has watched a lot of sports movies can practically read the formations, with football serving as its own overpopulated subgenre. “Safety” doesn’t deviate from that game plan, but this fact-based Disney+ movie presents a story that’s stirring enough to predictably eke across the goal line as an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, even if it’s playing on a venue without crowds.
Disney actually has a rather proud tradition of sports movies through the years, including “Miracle” (about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team) and “Remember the Titans.” “Safety” clearly aspires to that company, which falls somewhat outside the wheelhouse of the streaming service’s Disney Channel-type originals.
The plot centers on Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a freshman football player at Clemson University, whose juggling of school, sports and a new female relationship (played by Corinne Foxx, Jamie’s daughter) is dealt a serious complication: His mother, who has struggled with addiction, must go into rehab, leaving Ray to care for his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), or see him go into the foster system.
At first, Ray chooses to take Fahmarr into his dorm room, trying to conceal his presence from everyone except his comic-relief roommate (Hunter Sansone). Not surprisingly, his performance suffers, as does the film after a while during that stretch.
Eventually, the truth comes out, and the community rallies around the pair. But that risks endangering Ray’s scholarship thanks to those arcane NCAA rules about improper benefits to athletes, potentially forcing a choice between family and football.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin (whose recent credits include “Marshall”) from a script by Nick Santora, the movie’s heart comes from not only the fraternal tie, but the “It takes a village” aspect of Fahmarr’s situation. That leads to several sports-movie cliches, including the tough but caring assistant coach (James Badge Dale) who takes special interest in Ray.
As the ultimate endorsement of the story’s TV-movie-worthy roots, the film closes with video of the Oprah Winfrey segment devoted to it, the gold standard in feel-good seals of approval.
Still, there’s a perhaps unavoidable need to drag out the drama – and comedy, with small challenges like sneaking Fahmarr into the dorm bathroom – before reaching the satisfying payoff, and “Safety” (a reference to more than just Ray’s position on the field) meanders somewhat in getting there.
As this week’s Investor Day presentation made clear, Disney+ has primarily sought original movies that dovetail with its family brand – think the live-action “Lady and the Tramp” – while serving as a home for concepts that might have struggled to make much of a splash in terms of opening-weekend box office.
Against that yardstick, “Safety” feels like it aims a bit higher than some of the service’s fare, and it’s good-hearted and uplifting. If you’re only going to score a couple of points, right now, that’s not a bad place to start.
“Safety” premieres Dec. 11 on Disney+. It’s rated PG.