Reginald Hudlin adapts the true story of a college athlete struggling to care for his young brother without losing his scholarship.
A scholarship football player carries more weight than any college student should have to in Safety, Reginald Hudlin’s adaptation of the true story of Clemson freshman Ray McElrathbey: While attempting to make the cut on the field and surpass expectations in class, he has to take custody of an 11-year-old brother after his single mom enters rehab. The movie bites off a lot as well, filling its two-hour running time with a story that might’ve stood a better chance of moving us if it had been developed as a more sober and more character-focused miniseries. As it is, the family pic’s light tone never lets its themes of addiction, abandonment and poverty hit home, instead focusing on its hero’s unlikely accomplishment and the brotherhood of sport.
Jay Reeves plays McElrathbey, whose arrival at Clemson’s South Carolina campus looks less exciting than most first semesters away from home: Ray’s so wiped out by 5:30 a.m. practices and playbook cramming, he almost doesn’t manage to get his textbooks in time to start classes. The bookstore employee who saves his skin there, Corinne Foxx’s Kaycee, might as well have a neon sign around her neck screaming “future girlfriend”: Not only is she generous and pretty, but she’s also a fangirl studying to be a sports journalist. (The film’s so confident we understand the solidity of their just-add-water relationship that it never bothers to show the two kissing.)
Ray’s kid brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), whom he calls Fay, has been sending a stream of texts that Ray mostly ignores. But when he realizes their mother (Amanda Warren) has been locked up for possession of drugs, Ray races home to Atlanta and winds up taking temporary custody of the kid. (There’s a very fraught scene with a man who’s been looking out for Fay, who seems to represent dangers the family continues to face, but the character is never mentioned again.)
Back on campus, it’s all perky music and inept high jinks. Ray will be kicked out of the dorm if he’s caught with a guest, so he and his Noo Yawk-raised roomie/teammate try to keep Fay a secret. They haul him to the bathroom and back in a duffel bag; they make flimsy excuses for the not-insubstantial noise the kid makes. But Fay’s a handful, and “keep a low profile” means nothing to him. (Mixson’s performance is lively and believable, but Nick Santora’s screenplay doesn’t give him memorable opportunities to make us laugh.)
With too many jobs to do, Ray is failing at all of them. At almost the dead center of the film, the script places him and Fay at a literal crossroads: Our hero doubles down on his commitment to his brother, embraces the help of his teammates and good-guy coaches, and suddenly everything looks much easier than it could possibly have been.
The film breezes through this transition because it has another obstacle ahead — one it hasn’t prepared us for at all, and doesn’t have the time to do justice to. In order to meet all his responsibilities, Ray wound up pursuing a waiver of NCAA rules barring student athletes from taking certain kinds of assistance from others. In real life, this was surely another giant headache for a young man who didn’t need it. But here, it’s treated like a form of persecution — curse you, you ethics-sticklers! — whose main function is to set up a big Capraesque scene that allows the Clemson community to be the supportive family Ray and Fay have never had.
Production companies: Select Films, Mayhem Pictures
Cast: Jay Reeves, Thaddeus J. Mixson, Corinne Foxx, James Badge Dale, Matthew Glave, Hunter Sansone, Amanda Warren, Miles Burris, Isaac Bell, Elijah Bell
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenwriter: Nick Santora
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray
Executive producers: Douglas S. Jones, Campbell McInnis
Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Editor: Terel Gibson
Composer: Marcus Miller
Rated PG, 119 minutes