The opening sequence of Free Style promises some hot—albeit indifferently filmed—motocross action, as riders kick up mud with their treads and fly over hills in obligatory slo-mo glory. And at the center is Corbin Bleu, the dreamy Sideshow Bob of High School Musical fame, playing an underclass, mixed-race, small-town scrapper who dreams of racing his way onto the professional circuit. Then he loses his sponsorship for nobly abandoning a race to tend to an injured competitor. Then he loses his bike and lacks the means to get a new one. Then the movie wait about 70 or 80 minutes before finally getting him back on the track again—and even then, a ludicrous set of circumstances keep him from really showing his stuff.
So don’t let the title fool you: Free Style isn’t about the high-flying world of amateur motocross. It’s really about an aspiring rider’s endless struggle just to get in a position to compete, and all the dull, workaday tedium that implies. Abandoned by his father as a toddler, Bleu lives with mother Penelope Ann Miller, who works a waitressing job at the local diner, and a little sister (Madison Pettis) who asks sweet little questions of him like, “Are we black or white?” (The answer to that one is permanently tabled.) Unable to make ends meet after his mother gets in a car accident, Bleu works night and day as a pizza delivery man and an electronics store clerk while spending his scant down time doing odd jobs at a horse farm to pay off a repurposed bike. On the plus side, he finds love with the feisty daughter (Sandra Echeverria) of a local entrepreneur (Gustavo Febres) who has the money to help bankroll a comeback.
Journeyman director William Dear once had a toehold in Hollywood, where he was responsible for Harry And The Hendersons, Angels In The Outfield, and the Richard Grieco vehicle If Looks Could Kill. Lately, he’s been relegated to TV and direct-to-DVD movies, but his signature bland semi-competence is all over Free Style, which desperately needs some flash of style and forward momentum. Establishing some rooting interest in an underdog like Bleu’s character is essential for movies like this, but not to the point where needless subplots about his mother’s relationship with the local sheriff is more vital than putting rubber to dirt. Then again, the payoff looks so ludicrous that maybe staying off the track was the right idea after all.