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Originally published October 8, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified October 8, 2009 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

Movie review: 'Free Style' is more than motocross

"Free Style," a motocross racing drama starring Corbin Bleu, could have been garish entertainment for the sport's fans, but instead it captures something of the mood of an exhausted, overextended American middle class.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Free Style,' with Corbin Bleu, Penelope Ann Miller, David Reivers, Madison Pettis. Directed by William Dear, from a screenplay by Jeffrey Nicholson and Joshua Leibner. 94 minutes. Rated PG for language, some sensuality and thematic material. Several theaters.

If the world truly needs a family-friendly drama built around motocross racing, it might as well be "Free Style," a wholly competent film from journeyman director William Dear ("Harry and the Hendersons," "Wild America").

One might have expected a motocross feature film to appeal solely to extreme-sports fanatics. But "Free Style," which is set in Oregon, goes out of its way to reach a broader audience with strong performances, a touch of soul and middle-class characters facing familiar dilemmas with finances, survival and one-parent households.

Interestingly, this 2008 production — only now being released in the U.S. — has a few seemingly throwaway story parallels with the early life of President Obama, whose childhood history most certainly was in the air around the time "Free Style" was in development.

The lead character, Cale (solid work by 20-year-old "High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu), has a white mom, Jeanette (Penelope Ann Miller), and a black dad, Dell (David Reivers), who abandoned his family and moved far away. Cale's mixed race, and that of his younger sister, Bailey (Madison Pettis), isn't particularly relevant to the story. But it does dovetail with an oddly obvious spirit of melting-pot inclusiveness extending, for example, to a Mexican-immigrant character who worked hard and became a successful American citizen.

The film's more essential dynamic is economic: the way good, hardworking people have to burn themselves out just to keep up with ordinary self-preservation, let alone pursue dreams. Despite his prowess on the motocross racetrack, Cale doesn't even own the bike he rides. The jobs he works go toward paying the bills, and when an exhausted Jeanette gets seriously hurt, Cale has to forget racing to pay what the family's health insurance won't.

In this context, motocross racing is just a gimmick in "Free Style," a reason to pad the movie with second-unit footage of noisy bikes trying to get airborne. If you don't know anything about the sport, you might find it entertaining. Fortunately, Dear has the class and good sense not to shoot the racing action like a garish ESPN special.

Tom Keogh:

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