Free Style

By Michael T. Dennis
“Free Style” is firmly among the losers, borrowing liberally from many inspiring tales of human achievement that have come before it and going to great lengths, but to no avail, to conjure sympathy for its protagonists.
It's primarily a vehicle for Corbin Bleu, best known for his fifth-or-sixth billing in the wildly popular “High School Musical” movies. Bleu plays Cale Bryant, a sensitive kid with a dream of joining the professional motocross racing circuit. Cale has everything going against him: an absent father, an emotionally distant mother, and a cheating girlfriend.
But that's not all. Cale and his kid sister Bailey (Madison Pettis) must endure the taunts of classmates because they are biracial. The family is poor, so that Cale has to work three jobs. His motorbike is on loan from his sponsor and can be taken away at any moment (no surprise then when it actually is). Cale's friends come and go, motivated more by their own delusions of fleeting glory than any genuine loyalty. Against these odds, Cale must find himself while finding a way to compete for his dreams.
“Free Style” opens with on the racetrack where a group of local boys are fighting to establish a name that will lead them toward the pro tour. Cale is quickly in the lead, but just before he reaches the finish line he turns his bike around, throwing away an easy victory, to go back and help his fallen friend. The neighborhood bully takes the checkered flag and Cale is left trying to figure out why nobody applauds his heroic act.
This marks the beginning of a sustained struggle to take Cale seriously. His non-threatening, self-sacrificing ways are the stuff of fiction, intended to melt the hearts of tween girls, who may have no trouble accepting these personality traits as the soft side of a badass biker. The same holds true for Corbin Bleu's puppy dogface and "free style" hairdo.
After losing his sponsorship (and bike) Cale puts his dream on hold to take care of the family. Besides his little sister there's his mother, Jeanette (Penelope Ann Miller), the manager of a local coffee shop who's always drifting off with her head in a book, presumably part of an attempt to improve her family's situation through higher education. Cale's job gets a lot harder when Jeanette falls asleep at the wheel after a late-night study session and winds up in the hospital. Cale must sell the old motorbike he's been restoring to pay her medical bills, putting his racing dream even further out of reach.
As the story comes to an end, “Free Style” tries to become uplifting. Through a series of unlikely events, Cale gets one last chance to make everything right and, as we've suspected all along, achieves a victory, though not in the way he might have planned it.
Story problems and a confused tone hamper the film. Big trouble is in the character, which is burdened with miseries and never gets a chance to express his frustration. It seems that Cale will have just that opportunity in a scene where he tracks down and confronts his disowning father. But the would-be catharsis is stifled when Cale makes a few calm observations and politely refuses his father's offer of money.
While Cale may never get to that dark place, “Free Style” at least toys with the idea. So much time is spent trying to drum up pity for Cale and his family, from the futile scratching of lottery tickets on Jeanette's birthday to the brush with politics when it is revealed that her health insurance won't cover her medical expenses from the car accident. In this age of economic downturn, these are the deep sufferers we so often hear about in media exaggerations.
However, any meaningful statement about dealing with the slings and arrows of life's inherent unfairness is erased. “Free Style” ends by synthesizing so many memorable sports film endings that we half expect to see Stallone waiting at the finish line to high-five the bikers. This ending is terribly disingenuous, playing with emotions by making it seem as if Cale will win, then lose, then win, then lose…
Director William Dear's biggest credit to date is 1994's “Angels in the Outfield,” which, while not a triumph, is a decent film that benefits from the nostalgic pull of baseball. With “Free Style,” Dear is just enabling exploitation. Besides pouncing on a hot commodity like Corbin Bleu, “Free Style” reveals the true exploitive cost of seemingly-innocuous popular fare for tweens; at their worst, these films fetishize youth and preach simplistic morals to a naïve, sheltered choir.
Cale Bryant – Corbin Bleu
Derek Black – Matt Bellefleur
Justin Maynard – Jesse Moss
Alex – Sandra Echeverría
Jeanette – Penelope Ann Miller
Bailey Bryant – Madison Pettis
Rigel Entertainment, Up North Entertainment, and Victoria Filmproduktion
Distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company
Directed by William Dear
Written by Jeffrey Nicholson and Joshua Leibner
Producers, Christian Arnold-Beutel, Corbin Bleu, Rob Cowan, David Doerksen, Michael Emanuel, Dean E. Fronk, Randy James, John F.S. Laing, Tim McGrath, Jim O'Grady, Donald Paul Pemrick, David Reivers
Original Music, Stephen Endelman
Casting, Dean E. Fronk, Jackie Lind, and Donald Paul Pemrick
Production Designer, Tink

Art Director, John Alvarez