Blind Side, The (United States, 2009)

November 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Blind Side, The Poster

The marketing campaign for The Blind Side plays up the inspirational aspects of the story - that it's based on the real-life rags-to-riches tale of football player Michael Oher and the woman whose fierce love and determination to help him allowed him to see the Promised Land. There's no doubt this is a crowd-pleaser, as occasional bursts of applause attested during the screening I attended. The film skillfully plays on an audience's emotions, but that's what this sort of movie does, and director John Lee Hancock shows a sure hand when it comes to careful manipulation. He rarely goes too far and he knows enough to leaven the heavy emotional aspects with bursts of comedy and the occasional telling point about what causes us to value individuals in this society.

Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) was selected in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens. This is a sanitized (some might argue "Hollywood-ized") version of events that brought him to that point. When the film begins, he's a lost teenager who has been accepted to a private religious school because of his untapped potential as a football player. The coach (Ray McKinnon) salivates when he considers Michael's size and strength on his offensive line - he's a bear of a man - but Michael's academic performance is so poor that he is ineligible to play. He has no home - the State took him away from his crack-addicted mother when he was a child and he mostly looks for warm places to spend the night. He is wandering the streets in the cold and the rain when Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) spots him. She and her husband, Sean (Tim McGraw), recognize him since their son, S.J. (Jae Head), and daughter, Collins (Lily Collins), go to his school. Impulsively, Leigh Anne invites Michael to spend the night on her couch, and that one night becomes the first of many. Michael becomes a part of the Touhy family, his performance at school improves, and he is finally able to show what he can do on a football field.

To be sure, there are some stock elements in the story, such as a scene in which Michael returns to the projects and confronts some of the gangsters who knew him as a child. But what's impressive about The Blind Side is how many of the familiar clich├ęs are not to be found in the movie. No villain is invented to generate unnecessary conflict. There is no weepy reunion between Michael and his birth mother. There are no tortured scenes of drawn-out family bonding. The Blind Side isn't exactly subtle but neither is it cloying. Hancock, who also directed another inspirational sports drama, The Rookie, gets the tone just about right. And, while things are softened considerably for the PG-13 rating, there are hints of darker elements that don't quite make it to the screen.

In a way, this is Precious for a family-friendly audience. Lee Daniels' movie is more gritty and gripping, but the core message is the same about an individual with profound disadvantages overcoming his or her disabilities and finding success in life. Both are fairy tales of a sort, and it hardly matters that one has its roots in fact and the other is based on a work of fiction. Some will doubtlessly dismiss The Blind Side as another example of a heroic white person saving a black victim but, although there is an element of truth in that perfunctory description, it misses the point. This is more about simple human decency and economic disadvantage than it is about racial inequality (although it would be disingenuous to ignore a link). Leigh Anne helps Michael not because of the color of his skin or his potential as an athlete - she does it because she sees another human being suffering and reaches out to him. Others, like Coach Cotton, have ulterior motives for extending themselves.

Although the central character in the real life drama is Michael, that's not necessarily the case with the movie, in which the script strikes a balance between Michael and Leigh Anne. But where relative newcomer Quinton Aaron operates a little under the radar, Sandra Bullock is anything but low-key. She is very good in this juicy role - the right mix of tough love and occasional vulnerability. There's some of the Julia Roberts vibe from Erin Brockovich here and it would be foolish to assume the actress was unaware of the Oscar potential inherent in the part when she accepted it. Still, Bullock pulls it off and it seems possible a nomination could be in her future. She is ably supported: Tim McGraw is likeable as the supportive husband who's along for the ride; Lily Collins shows spunk as the little sister who defies peer pressure to embrace her new brother; and Jae Head provides most of the comedic relief. Aaron, meanwhile, has the physique to play Michael and his acting is solid enough for him to be able to pull off the role of the gentle giant, but he spends a fair amount of time in Bullock's shadow. A number of college coaches have cameos; Nick Saban is probably given too much screen time. He's a truly awful actor, as becomes evident as soon as he begins reciting dialogue.

The trailer makes The Blind Side out to be more mawkish than it is. Although there is some softening of the edges and amplification of the positives, the film doesn't take it to extremes or play the audience for fools. The script is generally pretty smart - it begins with a fabulous voiceover detailing how Joe Theismann's 1985 injury resulted in Michael having a shot at eventual stardom - and the characters are nicely developed. It's easy for an inspirational movie to try too hard to get viewers to cheer. This one achieves the goal by allowing the good feelings to emerge organically rather than by artificial means. In a head-to-head comparison, one would be hard-pressed not to declare that Precious is the better film - it makes fewer compromises and doesn't shy from showing the true ugliness only hinted at in this movie, but The Blind Side is more accessible. It's easier to digest. In the end, both films tell stories of triumph over adversity - a category of drama that uplifts while offering a dollop of social commentary.

Blind Side, The (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1