Over the past 13 months, Disney+ has released a series of original films that are all heavily indebted to the era of live-action filmmaking that preceded the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before the studio had been packed full of franchises. In the last three weeks alone, they’ve leaned heavily on some of their most familiar live-action tropes. Black Beauty was a high-toned literary adaptation with an animal bent; Godmother was a wacky low-budget, high-concept comedy. It’s somewhat surprising, though, that it took more than a year for Disney+ to release its first straight-to-streaming true-story sports drama. The title says it all: Safety hits recognizable beats and never really challenges its setup, making for a maddeningly, mystifyingly safe crowd-pleaser.

Safety retells the story of Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), who’s at Clemson University on a full football scholarship. Ray’s background is modest, to say the least: his mother is in and out of rehab for drug addiction, and his younger brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixon) is often left to his own devices in whatever drug dealer’s home their mother’s spending time in. As things spiral further out of control, Ray takes matters into his own hands and brings Fahmarr to live with him (in secret) in his dorm room. He can only keep the secret to himself for so long, eventually becoming the center of a national news story as he appeals to the NCAA to get some financial aid to ensure that he can both play football and serve as Fahmarr’s legal guardian.

The crux of the movie becomes clear in its second half: Ray has to hide his little brother away, beg off getting a ride from a helpful booster, and presumably turn away even the most meager amount of help in spite of being a “student-athlete”. That terminology exists as a way for the NCAA to ensure that the athletes at football-focused colleges like Clemson (though there are plenty more, all around the country) don’t actually get paid for the incredibly hard work they perform week in, week out. 

In a normal world, building up to a triumphant moment at the NCAA – you may consider it a spoiler to even imply that Ray’s appeal will work, but this is a Disney movie and of course this one has a happy ending – would be weird and mildly tone-deaf. In a world where both college and pro football leaders and administrators blithely ignore the devastating effects of an ongoing pandemic along with the usual blatant unfairness perpetuated against “student-athletes”, the juxtaposition is truly jaw-dropping.

So it’s all the more to the credit of director Reginald Hudlin and the cast that Safety is even worth watching, if just barely. In the midst of the film’s rah-rah sensibility towards the college football system, Reeves’ complex performance shines through. Ray McElrathbey has to balance his natural desire to have something close to a normal college life with his awareness that he has to do something for his younger brother, and Reeves plays that balance very effectively. The script, by Nick Santora, leans heavily on Ray as a protagonist; though there are a handful of adults in the film, including a sadly wasted James Badge Dale as one of Ray’s coaches, Reeves has to be, and succeeds at being, the anchor for the movie from beginning to end.

He’s almost good enough to help elide the film’s unavoidable issues with its source material. Both Reeves and Mixson have a believable chemistry as siblings, and Fahmarr’s frustration with being tossed from foster home to dorm room is well-played and well-written. But there’s a nagging sense – especially in the climactic NCAA hearing, which includes monologues from both Ray and the head of the NCAA board deciding his fate – that Safety is trying to put an upbeat and heartwarming spin on a truly depressing series of circumstances.

In a few scenes, Safety comes close to acknowledging how utterly backwards and unfair the NCAA system is to its hardworking athletes. One late argument between Ray and the coach played by Dale hints at the complexity and bureaucratic red tape inherent in the young man’s situation, until it reframes the argument to see which of the men has had a harder life. Ray, who is Black, accuses the coach, who isn’t, of helping him to feel better about himself. And then the coach tells him why he’s wrong, and what an uncomfortable scene it becomes.

Safety feels like the kind of movie that we might see more of, not just from Disney+ but other studios looking for something heartwarming in a world that gets colder each day. How far away are we from movies based on a particularly emotional GoFundMe page, or a local story of a community helping out so that one of its members can get basic amenities? It’s a good thing that Ray McElrathbey was able to fight through impossible adversity and get the NCAA to waver on its cruel measures towards its own players. And the cast of Safety is as convincing as possible. Disney knows how to make blandly effective sports dramas. But some stories are less inspiring than they seem.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.