Originally published in November 2009.
John Lee Hancock’s film version of Michael Lewis’ novel, The Blind Side is an unexpected holiday gift to movie-goers looking for a little emotional uplift with their theater experience. In a sea of empty calorie FX pictures, yawny teen flicks, and devestating dramatic pieces, The Blind Side is that dependable but all too infrequent of cinematic treats; an honest to goodness family film.
Drawn from the real-life story of Baltimore Ravens’ right tackle Michael O’Her, Side isn’t so much a sports movie as it is an ode to familial stability and sincere charity towards those who truly could use it. It is the second film opening in Baltimore theaters this weekend that focuses upon altruistic individuals pursuing and abiding with less fortunates in whom they see a greater potential; the other is Precious, and while it’s dramatically and artistically the stronger movie, it is a welcome surprise to find that this one delivers its message in a similarly clear, strong voice.
I suppose I was expecting something different, given the cast and a trailer that suggested the usual heart-warming sports film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that genre as much as the next guy, but the effect is almost always the same so I don’t seek them out unless I’m in the mood for that particular experience. What works here is the unlikeliness of the true story, involving the homeless Oher being taken in by the upper-class Tuhoy family who also happen to be devout evangelical Christians. That plot, in the hands of by-the-numbers studio appointed writers could have been a massacre; a poor African American boy is rescued by generous God-fearing white folk. Awww. It’s time for a hug.
Thankfully, Hancock, who adapted the script himself from Lewis’ novel (where the Oher story was one of two plot threads), takes the time to get the details correct and although there is no doubt that the characters have been exaggerated and some events imbellished, overall the movie features believable people encountering and interacting with one another in believable ways. The Tuohys are not one dimensional do-gooders and Oher isn’t portrayed as a giant lug who always needs to be pulled around by his face guard in order to get where he’s going.
For the Tuhoy family, made up of Sean and Leigh Anne and their children, this 300 lb young black man with no percievable family will challenge the structure and notions of their own. In the film they find the down-trodden Oher wandering on the side of a road. In reality, Sean, a one-time point guard for Ole Miss who went on to become a successful fast-food franchise entreupenur, met the oversize Mike at Briarcrest Christian where Tuohy was acting as consultant to teams and coaches. In both versions, Michael is a man with a troubled home life, low intelligence, and a distinct lack of options. The Tuohys are well off and as far demographically and culturally from their new charge as possible, and yet their pairing turns out to be life-changing for all parties.
Hancock follows the cues of similar stories that have come before, and he displays an even hand in delivering the sequences that portray Oher’s educational struggles and the dynamic that exists within the Tuhoy household. Very little of the film is given over to football at all. We see only one game, but the sport is the lynchpin, key and focus to Oher’s material success. The love and care he recieves from others and reciprocates in his own gentle giant fashion, are the keys to his spiritual and emotional success. So, inevitably, The Blind Side becomes almost completely a story about family values and the sanctity of a supportive home life. If the acting and the writing aren’t working, a story like this will fall hard.
The acting is well up to the task and it’s primarily the reason I’m recommending The Blind Side as much as I am. For starters, I was actually surprised by Tim McGraw as Sean. Singers switching over to acting don’t typically work, but McGraw sort of pulls a Kristofferson here and manages to make the transition relatively seamless. He embodies the character, but isn’t there to carry the movie. Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne and relative newcomer Quentin Aaron as Oher are the dynamic duo driving Blind Side towards the end zone. Surprisingly, they play off each other terrifically well.
I have no idea how sassy Leigh Anne is in real life, or how large her part in Oher’s transformation really was, but Bullock takes the character as written–and some of it is unfortunately written as near psychotic football mom–and makes it the most endearing work she’s ever done. Underneath the accent, the glib little comedy moments, she makes us understand that Leigh Anne is forming a strong and maternal connection for Mike and it is surprising even she. Her spiritual values prompted the decision to bring him in, but everything that happens afterwards is linked to the ways that Mike gives of himself and his ability to sacrifice and serve the family he is now a part of. Aaron is really terrific in the role, and he sells that quiet, gentle and downcast spirit within a juggernaut’s facade but he doesn’t choose one emotive tact and stick with it for the entire picture. Instead, we see a young man in the midst of a positive change and as he improves we see him struggle and be challenged and prevail and then do the whole thing over again. The supporting cast are all strong and do what they should do; make smaller scenes orbiting the Tuhoys and Oher come to life.
There are some weaknesses to The Blind Side, and most of them lie in trying to meet the expectations of a general audience. There are too many cute lines by far, and occassionally the film pushes Leigh Anne to the foreground more often than was probably accurate to real life or necessary for the story. There is no doubt that a more dramatically honest picture could have been culled together from this material, but I think it is up for debate if it would have had the same uplift. What Blind Side reminds us is that ‘uplift’ and feel-good’ don’t have to be dirty phrases, and that watching people helping out their fellow man/woman isn’t the worst way to spend a few hours at the cinema.