The overt message of The Blind Side is that you shouldn’t underestimate a kid from a disadvantaged background. Its real message is that you shouldn’t underestimate Sandra Bullock. This year she’s starred in two solid hits — this film and The Proposal — and one relative flop (All About Steve). Even in the last movie, whose script is an abomination, she manages to come off as intermittently likeable.
Maybe viewers like Bullock because she seems more grounded than the standard rom-com uptight princesses and ditzy dames. Even when she plays an ex-cheerleader Southern belle who’s just this side of bitchy, as she does in The Blind Side, she has a self-deflating wit that belongs more to a grownup tomboy than a prima donna.
Thanks to her performance and the light touch of director John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side is an uplifting sports drama not nearly as corny as its trailer suggests. But the film suffers from showcasing Bullock’s character to the detriment of the person whose amazing true story this really is.
The film’s source, Michael Lewis’ 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, chronicles the progress of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a hulking, silent, virtually homeless Memphis kid who was adopted by wealthy football boosters Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Tim McGraw and Bullock) and ended up playing for Ole Miss, then in the pros.
One scene sums up the appeal of Bullock’s Leigh Anne to female audiences in particular. As depicted here, the Tuohy family celebrates Thanksgiving in front of their big-screen TV with takeout turkey and stuffing. When Leigh Anne sees that Michael is eating alone in the dining room, she moves the rest of the family to join him. She’s a Christian, Republican, pistol-packing straight talker who’s too busy to cook a traditional feast and too bossy to let anyone in her domain be isolated or mistreated.
Think a kinder, gentler Sarah Palin. And, in her approach to the noncommunicative Oher, Leigh Anne does come off as perceptive and empathetic. Because of his athletic potential, the boy has landed at the Christian school the Tuohy kids attend, where he earns a GPA so low it’s barely discernible. But teacher Kim Dickens suspects he’s smarter than he seems, and Bullock sets out to prove her right. In the process of developing Oher’s mind, she also — conveniently for her and her alma mater, Ole Miss — grooms him into a promising left tackle.
This holiday crowd pleaser has the potential to come off as a patronizing story about rich white folks “saving” a poor African American kid. The film’s greatest weakness is the vagueness of Oher’s character, a gentle giant who appears to have no interest in bashing other giants on the ballfield. Leigh Anne compares him to kids’-book favorite Ferdinand the Bull, who prefers the pasture to the ring. But she seems to forget Ferdinand is a pacifist fable, as she fires Oher up by telling him to defend his teammates as if they were his family. It’s a tad too close to the way one might train a guard dog by harnessing its pack-protective instincts.
Granted, Oher is shown making his own choices. But we never get far inside his mind. And when Leigh Anne threatens the drug dealers in Michael’s old neighborhood, snarling that she’s “in a prayer group with the DA and always packing,” she comes off as the soccer mom’s answer to Dirty Harry. The story doesn’t need these scenes that bludgeon us with her specialness.
The Blind Side is the rare movie that’s better than its trailer, thanks to a dose of down-home realism. Does Bullock deserve an Oscar for giving the inspirational sports movie a feminine twist? No. But she earns her salary.