The customary, adrenaline-juiced montage of football prep and clash comes fast, furious and surprisingly early in the football melodrama “Safety,” streaming on Disney Plus starting Dec. 11. There’s a reason for the hurry, hurry, hurry. Turns out, college ball isn’t the most important goal of this heart-tugger, directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by Nick Santora. At least, not in typical gridiron fashion. Not that the college team’s boosters will have cause to belly ache: The screen is awash with their beloved tiger mascot’s paw print and inundated with waves of Clemson orange.
Jay Reeves — in what should be a boost to his nascent career — appeals as the promising football frosh Ray “Ray Ray” McELrathBey. When Ray arrives at Clemson U. in South Carolina, he already faces daunting demands as an earnest student and new recruit in a storied program. And he quickly gets on the wrong side of humungous teammate Ron (Miles Burris) and the right side of Kaycee (Corinne Foxx), the school paper’s sports reporter. He also intrigues his psych professor, Dr. Matthews (Tom Nowicki).
Ray’s hardly settled into the routine when he has to return to Atlanta where his mother has been arrested for drug possession. No one would blame him if he allowed his little brother go to foster care for the time their mom is in a 30-day rehab program. But he can’t let that happen — and he didn’t. If this rings a bell, it might be because Oprah Winfrey dedicated a show to the McELrathBey brothers back in 2007.
Although “Safety” takes its cues from a true story, its beats are comfortingly familiar — or annoyingly so, depending on your fondness for the rhythms of the genre. Still, Hudlin plies more than a few nuanced gestures in service of the story of a big brother who refuses to let his sibling fall through the cracks of a system that routinely fails young Black men and boys. In keeping with the film’s compassionate approach, that social service network is populated with people actually trying to make a difference in foster care and drug recovery. Baddies (such as they are in this decidedly “Disney” outing) make a brief appearance when Ray retrieves Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson in a warm turn) who has moved in with their mother’s “boyfriend.”
Ray decides to take Fahmarr back to campus and hide him for the 30 days. The score playfully teases what amounts to a reverse heist in which Ray tries to keep his brother in the dorm under the nose of the residential hall assistant. (He ain’t heavy, he’s my duffle bag…) Of course Ray is forced to enlist the help of roomie Daniel; Hunter Sansone gives an amiable performance as the third-string kicker with a heart of gold. Although the reasons Ray brought Fahmarr back to campus are weighty, Hudlin makes sure to have some fun. Late in the movie, a slow-dance lesson — to Earth, Wind and Fire, no less — gives way to an endearing first date, or two.
James Badge Dale brings a John Gruden-amped energy to Coach Simmons. He’s a hard-ass, until he’s not. Ditto craggy, gruff Head Coach Bowden (Matthew Glave). If Burris uncannily looks the part of team heavy Ron, it’s because he played college ball and then did a stint as linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. (He’s credited as “Huge Guy #2” for an upcoming movie.)
The 30 days stretches and then threatens to stretch some more because addiction recovery seldom hews to a tight schedule. Scenes between Ray and his mother are especially poignant thanks to Amanda Warren’s performance as a loving, overpromising drug addict.
There is an ever-widening circle of teammates who know — and embrace — Ray’s secret. Eventually, Ray and the team run afoul of the NCAA and its rules about fiscal support. Will the Clemson Tigers — which get with the program and begin rallying around Ray and Fahmarr — roar back? Let’s just say, Hudlin finds a fresh way to evoke that enduring “I am Spartacus” moment, to quietly rousing effect.