'The Blind Side' Scores With Heart
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
As they say in law, the truth is its own defense. If "The Blind Side" were some screenwriter's invention, I would have no choice but to jeer it from the theater with the kind of scorning, mocking laughter so loud it might very well knock the film off the projector. But "The Blind Side" is not entirely invented, and it does tell the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a virtually homeless young man taken in first by a private school and then by the Tuohy family, under the guidance of Southern-fried, common-sense mascaraed matriarch Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock). Director John Lee Hancock has mined similar true-life-but-feel-good material before, with "The Rookie," so as Oher becomes a football star, we watch his efforts and successes (which are painted in real terms, not soft-lit fantasy) and we also watch the Tuohys change and grow. Again, if it were invented, culminating on Oher becoming an All-American and an NFL draft pick, your stomach would turn. But it is not, and Hancock is so smooth (but not slick) in his Capra-on-the-field story that, instead, your heart is warmed without your intelligence being insulted.
Michael Oher was kicked from foster home to foster home; the Tuohy clan -- Leigh Anne, husband Sean (a nicely underplayed Tim McGraw), daughter Collins (Lily Collins), and little S.J. (Jae Head) -- love each other very much. Michael came up from the Memphis projects; the Tuohys live in a mansion in the suburbs. Michael owns two shirts; Sean Tuohy owns "about 84" fast-food outlets. And yet, when Leigh Anne sees Michael walking in the rain, she realizes that even with his scholarship to the same school that Collins and S.J. attend, he has no home to go to at night. And so she offers him one.
Some sneering MasterCard Marxist, dorm-room revolutionary part of me scoffed at the idea: The Tuohys could help dozens of kids with what they have; why help just one? And yet, that reedy voice was quickly silenced by the fact that what the real Tuohys did was far more than I've done to help the needy lately, and done without reservation or expectation. Yes, Michael enjoyed football, but "The Blind Side" makes it clear that Leigh Anne would have stepped in and taken action if he didn't. In fact, at first Michael can't get the fundamentals of the game or execute the tasks of the left tackle, until Leigh Anne puts it into more concrete terms: "This team is your family and you have to protect them ... Tony is your quarterback. You protect his blind side. When you look at him, think of me. How you have my back." Motivated and liberated, Michael proceeds to astound and impress with his skills, and finds joy in them.
Like the TV show "Friday Night Lights" (which is better than "The Blind Side" only insofar as it's better than 99.5 percent of all sports movies), the film takes place in that space where, yes, football is incredibly important, but not, ultimately, more important than other things. And Bullock is, surprisingly, remarkably good in full-on Erin Brockovich mode here, towering in heels so high they seem to add to her moral stature, a designer-clothes exterior over a decent, strong heart. McGraw also delivers nice work, as does familiar-face character actor Ray McKinnon as Michael's high school coach. And while Quinton's performance as Michael could have slid into "Radio"-style mawkishness where "... we thought we were helping him but he was really helpin' us," he keeps a steady and even keel in his work. Michael is a kid with troubles, but he's not a troubled kid, and Quinton shows us every part of Oher's journey with a clear, hard-won sincerity.
And yet, "The Blind Side" is not perfect. A recruiting sequence, featuring real-life college coaches and S.J.'s canny skills as a negotiator, goes on for what feels like an eternity. And a scene in which Leigh Anne drives Michael down to the projects to look for his long-lost mother feels like a scene from "Dynasty" being smashed into one from "The Wire" -- and then again, that's sort of the point. Hancock adapts Michael Lewis' book, and while "The Blind Side' builds to a happy ending, you can feel it earn every yard like a offensive drive in football, darting and weaving through cynicism, sentimentality and laziness to fight its way to the end zone. "The Blind Side" may not make the All-American sports movies team, but it plays with plenty of heart.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine.