An "I'm Spartacus" scene is a movie trope that cannot miss and it doesn't again in "Safety."
A band of buddies standing together to defy authority may be even more moving now, when it's difficult for us to be together. In the fact-based "Safety," premiering Friday on Disney Plus, the buddies rise for Ray Ray McElrathbey (earnest, likable Jay Reeves), a Clemson football player who ran afoul of the NCAA when he needed extra help from the team's supporters.
With his mother in rehab for an extended period, teenage McElrathbey became the guardian of his younger brother, smuggling him into his dorm room in laundry carts and leaning on teammates and fans for help.
It's quite a story and director Reginald Hudlin, whose last feature was the Thurgood "Marshall" biopic starring the late Chadwick Boseman, tells it simply. McElrathbey, who does everything he can to make a better life for himself and his brother, is an incredibly appealing character so Hudlin doesn't lean too hard on the heroics. "Safety" is just as interested in the moments when McElrathbey falls short, disappointing a potential romantic interest because he never has time to meet her or violating team rules because his brother can't be trusted alone in his dorm room. (Also, Hudlin doesn't lean on the cute quotient. Far from a clichéd adorable moppet, the kid, played by Thaddeus J. Mixson, is kind of a pain.)
What McElrathbey accomplished is almost unimaginable — the movie would be hard to swallow if it weren't a well-documented story. So Hudlin wisely focuses on the day-to-day details as McElrathbey's insta-parenthood inevitably shifts from a secret he struggles to keep, to a team project, to an NCAA problem. (It helps that, like the CIA, the NCAA is a universally hissable bad guy.)
Unlike "Mulan" or the upcoming "Soul," which Disney shifted to its streaming service because few theaters are open to play them, the modest "Safety" feels like it always was intended for the small screen. The actors are fine but it's an extremely low-wattage cast (the most recognizable name is not-recognizable-at-all James Badge Dale as McElrathbey's coach). Even if you don't know about these events, which took place in the mid-2000s, the beats of the story have the familiar, organized-around-commercial-breaks structure of a TV show.
The structure works, though, because "Safety" is about a different kind of toughness than most sports movies. McElrathbey was a role player for Clemson who never became a star, which means "Safety" can't rely on the big play/come-from-behind upset/David-and-Goliath climax you might expect. That missing piece might be why "Safety" was made on a small scale but it works in its favor.
That McElrathbey's life doesn't fit the mold of your average inspiring sports movie is a good thing because it allows "Safety" to show that winning off the field is much more important than on.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG for mild language.Streaming: Disney Plus.