The trailers for The Blind Side triggered my "oh geez, another sports-related Triumph of the Human Spirit" cynicism, and I might not have seen the film at all if I hadn't been assigned to review it. That would have been my loss, and I experienced the lovely surprise of having a movie turn out far more enjoyable than I expected. The Blind Side has no twists or gimmicks other than being a very good example of a sports-related family film, with quality performances and writing.
The movie's title is a football reference, which the voiceover of Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) explains at the beginning. Michael Oher (Quenton Aaron) is sweating out a tough but unspecified situation in an office, when we flash back a few years and meet him as Big Mike. An African-American staff member at a mostly white Christian private school is trying to get his athletic son into the school, and the school's coach also spots some athletic potential in Big Mike, granting him a scholarship. Big Mike has terrible trouble keeping up in school, and when his friend's family stops helping him out, he is virtually homeless -- sleeping in the school gym, eating popcorn left there after events, wearing the same thin clothes daily.
Although Big Mike is an oddity at the private school, he gets along well with smaller children like S.J. (Jae Head), and thus attracts the attention of S.J.'s parents, Leigh Anne and Sean Touhy (Tim McGraw). The upper-class family takes him in and encourages him -- they're very much into sports both as former participants and current fans, so they encourage him in football and in schoolwork so he can possibly win a football scholarship to college. Will he be able to succeed, or will he return to his neglectful, drug-addicted mother?
The Blind Side is based on the nonfiction account of Michael Oher by Michael Lewis, which was adapted by the film's director, John Lee Hancock. If you've read the book or know about Oher, the outcome of the movie won't surprise you. But that's not the point -- this is a movie about characters and relationships, and the effects of great acts of kindness. Bullock, Aaron and Head are the highlights of the film; other characters tend to border on stereotypes, but these three have depth and warmth and fit together beautifully. Kathy Bates has a small but amusing role as a tutor.
The real-life basis for the film may explain some of the difficulties with the story. It's hard to get past the seeming visual message that the African-American community can't or won't care for their own, and that the saviors here are rich white conservatives. The movie is more complicated and personal than that, for the most part. However, I couldn't believe the scene in which the family that knew about Michael's situation, and offered him a warm place to sleep, suddenly kicked him out and neglected him. It may reflect real life -- I can't tell without reading the book or asking Oher himself -- and real life often makes no sense, but it doesn't work in the context of the film.
And if this were a purely fictional story, I'd wonder why Longview, Texas native John Lee Hancock and current Texan Sandra Bullock had set a film about intense football fans in Memphis and not in Texas. The rhythms of the dialogue often sound more Texas than Tennessee, although the Touhy adults are actually Ole Miss alumni. Hancock does have some fun casting the college football coaches in The Blind Side -- they all play themselves. Some of the coaches are not quite comfortable speaking lines someone else wrote, but then-LSU coach Nick Saban may have missed a calling as a character actor.
If you can get your head past the dicey racial issues -- nearly all African-American characters in this film live in the projects, and I know Memphis is far more diverse than that -- The Blind Side is a very entertaining family film that avoids the maudlin cliches of "inspirational" films, or at least pads them out with some depth or humor. I'm not fond of football myself, or intense football fans, but the characters appealed to me and I didn't even mind the long running time (128 minutes). This is a movie I'd love to take my mom to see -- she wouldn't find anything offensive, and we'd both be entertained. Sandra Bullock fans who may have tolerated some stinkers in order to watch their favorite actress will be rewarded with one of her better performances and one of her better movies.