Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) should have been just another statistic. Raised off and on by through his teens by a crack-addicted mother in the Memphis projects, Oher was legally a ward of the state of Tennessee who spend most nights simply trying to find a safe place to sleep. Surrounded by others who gave in to the temptations of the streets, Oher was known as a "runner," a child who would run away from every foster home where he was placed so that he could return to his mother.
A brief stint on a friend's couch led to an unexpected chance, an opportunity to attend a well regarded Christian school despite being grossly unqualified from an academic standpoint. However, the street is hard to leave behind and this large, seemingly unintelligent African-American male doesn't exactly fit in easily in his new largely white, upper-class environment.
Then, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) enters his life. Oher is wandering the streets in the cold and rain when he is spotted by Leigh Anne, who learns he's a fellow student of daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and younger son SJ (Jae Head) and offers, rather assertively, a place to stay for the night with the support of adoring hubby, Sean (Tim McGraw).
Now then, go ahead and say what you're thinking.
You're thinking "Not another white folks playing savior to poor African-American story," aren't you?
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also gave us the inspirational "The Rookie," "The Blind Side" transcends its formulaic framework on the strength of Hancock's even-keeled, intelligent writing and direction and a spot-on perfect ensemble cast led by the delightful Sandra Bullock as the feisty yet compassionate Leigh Anne Tuohy.
While it may be tempting to dismiss "The Blind Side" as just another white do-gooder story, to do so would be a grave injustice to the real life Michael Oher, a 2009 draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, and the real life family who welcomed him into their home and treated him like their son and sibling.
While "The Blind Side" has undoubtedly been softened for the big screen and for its PG-13 rating, the powerful and true story is inspirational not because of its racial dynamics but because the story transcends the issues of race and economics.
One gets the sense that the night that Leigh Anne Tuohy welcomed Michael into her home that he could have been any race...African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian...he wasn't welcomed into her home because of the color of his skin, but because in that moment she identified a need and made a conscious choice to make a difference in that young man's life despite any potential risks involved. In that moment, it could be said that the Tuohy's needed Michael as much as Michael needed them, though certainly Michael's needs were more easily identified and tangible.
Some critics, for example Village Voice's Melissa Anderson and Time Out New York's David Fear, have accused "The Blind Side" of pandering to the lowest common denominators of racism and classism. It's an understandable, yet misguided accusation that fails to recognize the ways in which this true story actually transcends racism by showing how people can move outside of themselves to reach out to one another. Is the power of this story lessened because Michael was lifted out of poverty? Is the power of this story lessened because the Tuohy's were wealthy, a fact that Hancock neither hides nor flaunts in the film?
In fact, to thoroughly trash a film, as both Anderson and Fear have done with "The Blind Side," solely on the basis of a storyline of a Caucasian family helping an African-American teenager is thinly veiled racism in itself because it implies that the action is inherently racially based. It's not that far removed from supporting characters on both sides of the fence, white and African-American, who have a complete inability to understand how "family" could be birthed out of such cultural differences.
Oh, and it's also lazy journalism that fails to recognize the artistic value and integrity in "The Blind Side."
This is not to say, however, that "The Blind Side" is a perfect film. Indeed, it is not. Despite what feels like a surprisingly breezy and comfortable 126 minute run time, "The Blind Side" does stretch out the story a bit too much and, given the exceeding length, fails to capitalize with any particular sociological or psychological insights.
As a young man who'd been known as a "runner," why does Michael not run from the home? What makes Michael stick with Wingate, the school he's attending, despite incredible academic struggles? What is it about SJ, several years his junior, that allows him to bond with him?
Similarly, what DID Leigh Anne really experience that first night? Surely, she'd experienced needy people before in her life...what about Michael caused her and her family to disrupt their lives and open their home?
Unfortunately, Hancock's script offers little insight into the deeper goings on for the actions of the main characters. In particular, Michael is drawn out as a quiet, shy young man who does primarily function as a recipient of the Tuohy's kindness and compassion. Yet, to have survived his childhood Michael truly must've had a reservoir of overwhelming strength and it would have been nice to see this come alive onscreen.
Sandra Bullock, who has been showing as of late a newly discovered diversity of talent (excepting the godawful "All About Steve"), has a field day as the brassy yet vulnerable Leigh Anne and it wouldn't be out of the question for Bullock to pick up a Golden Globe nomination for her performance here. In a weak year for leading actress performances, even an Oscar nomination is not completely out of the question for Bullock, who nicely blends strength and vulnerability, feisty determination and good ole' Southern humor.
Country singer Tim McGraw does a nice job in a fairly thankless role as Leigh Anne's loyal, accepting husband while both of the film's youngsters, Lily Collins and Jae Head, are given multiple moments to shine with Head, in particular, getting a majority of the film's lighter moments.
As Michael Oher, Quinton Aaron provides a nice complement to Bullock's larger-than-life performance with a decidedly underplayed take on the quiet, reserved young man whose potential could not be measured by the aptitude tests that seemingly indicated a not so promising future. Watching Aaron quietly move Michael from a troubled, withdrawn young man to a fiercely loyal young man with a promising future is deeply touching, a testament to Aaron's disciplined and balanced performance.
Tech credits are solid across the board throughout "The Blind Side," with Alar Kivilo's cinematography standing out and Daniel Orlandi's costuming more than once bringing to mind Julia Roberts' spin in "Erin Brockovich." Carter Burwell's original score builds nicely with the family relationship, while the film also features an excellent accompanying soundtrack.
A strong alternative on opening weekend to those who wish to avoid swooning teens and vampires, "The Blind Side" is that rare formulaic flick that actually works. With a truly inspirational story as its foundation, an excellent script from John Lee Hancock and an award-worthy performance from Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side" will have you rooting for Michael Oher and the Baltimore Ravens and thankful for those people who transcend such issues as race and economics and make the conscious choice to make a difference.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic