“The Ride” begins with a scene of unexpected brutality, engineered by a racist, feral kid. Even so, its “inspired by a true story” promise at the start rings a little tinny. And early on, the BMX-meets-“love wins” drama about a boy whose white supremacist roots and abusive home life land him in juvenile detention has an afterschool-special veneer, albeit somewhat gritty. The over-emotive score, particularly at the outset, punctuates the violence and the sentiment unnecessarily.
But the movie, streaming on Amazon, gains emotional traction when seven years later, John McCord finds himself released to an interracial foster couple. The reason for the film’s emotional resonance owes less to the screenplay — which teases too many easy tropes — than it does to the slow-burn chemistry between Shane Graham, who plays John of the set jaw and racist quips, and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, who portrays the foster father who has seen a lot worse. “The Ride” doesn’t break new ground, but its likable cast delivers some nuanced even touching twists.
Marianna and Eldridge Buultjens (a linguist and a mechanical engineer, respectively) are nicely set up in a Cali neighborhood of manicured lawns and upscale stucco ranches. Hoping to adopt John in a year if all goes well, they are also emotionally primed for the embittered, wounded teen’s push back. As Marianna, Sasha Alexander makes it clear she’s loving, but she’s no pushover. Her first-day-at-a-new-school prep includes tenderly covering the small swastika brand behind John’s ear with foundation. But when John shows shame at having a Black foster father, she’s not going to let it slide.
The mark on John’s neck was a rough reward meted out by his older sibling Rory (Blake Sheldon plays the adult version) and their Aryan bros, who’ll make more than one appearance. You can take the kid out of the hardscrabble, Confederate flag-draped wooden cabin where the crew gathers to spout resentments and plan crimes, but can you take the fragile and faux superiority out of the kid? Not that John was ever fully without grace. He’s an illustrator as well as a fan of Mark Twain and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
As John settles into his new life, his edges soften ever so slightly. A confident, skateboard lovely named Sherri (Jessica Serfaty) befriends him. But even more life-altering is his interest in the BMX bikes a crew of dudes (energetic and jerky) maneuver: bouncing down school stairwells, spinning on single wheels, basically claiming space in athletic, creative ways. Eldridge sees John’s interest and buys a BMX. Contrary to his rebuke, once he clears a significant (and sweet) hurdle, John finds a calling and proves he’s got skillz. The film concludes at a nicely edited (by Brett Hedlund), wholly expected BMX competition with producer-actor Ali Afshar helming the team John competes on.
From time to time — often when things seem to be going his way — John is dogged by memories of the life that sent him into the juvenile injustice system: the violence, the drugs, the detritus-strewn home. (John Buultjens whose story the film is based on portrays his violent dad.) Two standard-issue, nonetheless pleasing montages push him toward love and athletic triumph. With their flowing images of familial connection and practice, practice, practice, they’re a bit of cheap if efficient trickery on the part of director Alex Ranarivelo. But if you’ve bought into the relationships, the rushing river of scenes pulls you along. The montages also enmesh a movie that has two purposes, which it pulls off better than most of its ilk. One pays honor to foster care; the other shows much love to the BMX circuit and its dude devotees.
“The Ride” debuted on the festival circuit in 2018, and the story of Black and white accord hitting a streaming platform after a summer of serious racial indictment and nascent reckoning invites skepticism. Why does this socially savvy couple default to John when there were a handful of young Black teens in that same detention center just as likely in need of a fresh start? Why is Eldridge the only Black man in the film? Even so, it’s a little too easy to tag Bridges’ character as that of just another “magical negro.” The critique of that tread-worn, pop-culture convention proved clever and pointed in Chris Rock’s hands but has grown imprecise and a little tired as one of the go-to criticisms of what actually transpires onscreen between characters of different races.
Bridges makes Eldridge more intriguing than that stereotype. There’s something chill about the rapper-actor’s approach to characters in general, and this betrayed son of Kentucky is no exception. Bridges’ knowing almost imperceptible smile rides on his dry-humor delivery. Additionally, the actual Buultjens — whose story this film takes many of its truths from — was in fact raised by an interracial foster couple. His dad is brown (Sri Lankan), not Black. Does moving the action to California and dialing up the volume on American white supremacy make a difference? Of course it does. But the love and respect the film shows this father from another culture is earned.