Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The Blind Side: Tenderhearted, Surprisingly Well Acted (Review)
(My review of The Blind Side was published in Folio Weekly. Click here to link directly to the piece online).
The Blind Side
Professional cynics and others constitutionally immune to the joys of sentimentality and conventional storytelling at the movies are likely to find The Blind Side easy to dismiss.
The film, recounting a homeless youth's rise from dirt-poor beginnings to a career in the NFL, thanks to the support and encouragement of a wealthy Memphis family, indeed is told in a straightforward manner, aside from a flashback that sets the plot in motion. There are probably one too many sequences during which cinematographer Alar Kivilo scans across dreamy smiles, and the mood occasionally turns overly saccharine.
Worse, in the eyes of some observers, is the lifted-up-from-poverty angle, as a seemingly helpless and aimless black teenager -- from a community called Hurt Village, honest to God -- is portrayed as prospering only through the help of benevolent whites.
Another patronizing product of white liberal guilt? It's all "white self-congratulation," according to one agenda-burdened Canadian reviewer.
The problem with that flawed analysis, of course, is that the story isn't merely a Hollywood contrivance: Texas-born filmmaker John Lee Hancock, also responsible for another feelgood sports movie, The Rookie, adapted his latest from a nonfiction novel, Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game."
Quietly impressive performances distinguish The Blind Side from its movie-of-the-week forebears.
In particular, there's a newly blonde Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a trim and feisty interior decorator and former cheerleader who convinces her husband (country star Tim McGraw) and their family to let a young stranger live with them. The visitor is oversized, shy Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), admitted to the Tuohy kids' ritzy private school thanks to the efforts of the school's coach (Ray McKinnon), eager to field a winning football team.
As with the screenplay for every feelgood film in movie history, The Blind Side offers obstacles for its protagonist to overcome and lessons to be learned by all. There are also victories to be savored, including, ultimately, Oher's impressive playing career with Ole Miss and the Baltimore Ravens.
Before achieving those feats, the kindly but imposing young man is forced to face teachers who make incorrect assumptions about his capacity for learning, and students reluctant to warm to someone from a background so radically different than their own. Michael also struggles to deal with the emotional wreckage of his past, suggested by brief images of childhood trauma. Leigh Anne, too, is forced to confront the unsubtle racism of her socialite friends.
Hancock wisely chooses to underplay the scenes focusing on the aforementioned situations and Bullock effectively navigates a role that in other hands might have alternated between brassy overkill and syrupy sweetness.
The same might be said for the supporting actors, including a suitably laidback McGraw (Four Christmases, Flicka) as Sean Tuohy, the wealthy owner of dozens of fast-food franchises; young Jae Head as SJ's the Tuohys' funny smartypants son; and Lily Collins as pretty teen Tuohy daughter Collins.
The always reliable Kathy Bates is Michael's tutor, Miss Sue, a smart and quirky woman who says she has a deep, dark secret that she must reveal before accepting the job: "I'm … a Democrat," she says. Aaron (Be Kind Rewind), as Michael, goes as deep as the script requires, but not any deeper. Kivilo, who also shot "Year One" and "The Ice Harvest" imbues the spacious interiors and exteriors -- Atlanta doubles for Memphis -- with real warmth.
There's no better time to release a sports movie than at the height of college football season. Fans of the sport will be amused by the cameo appearances of several celebrated coaches, current and former, all of whom apparently recruited Oher -- Alabama's Nick Saban, Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, South Carolina's Lou Holtz, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, and Ole Miss's Houston Nutt and Ed Orgeron.
Those appearances add to the entertainment quotient of a film that effectively balances gentle comedy and dramatic uplift. To his credit, Hancock makes it all look easy.