I’ve offered up a few bits of coverage of this film this week, including a talk with the director, John Lee Hancock, and an interview with Leigh Anne Touhy, the woman whose real life inspired the film in the first place. If you’ve read those interviews, then you might have picked up by now that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed “The Blind Side.”
Based on a book by Michael Lewis, “The Blind Side” tells the story of Michael Oher, who is now a left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, but who started life as a kid with pretty much everything stacked against him. The film is ostensibly a sports drama, but it violates a lot of the “rules” of the genre, to good effect. Instead of having everything hinge on the games we watch, Hancock keeps the focus squarely on the people and their story, and the result is affecting. Simple, direct, but affecting.
Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) was a kid growing up in the worst parts of Memphis when he managed to get enrolled in a private school, where he ended up in class with the kids of Sean Touhy (Tim McGraw) and his wife Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock). When Leigh Anne realized Michael was essentially homeless, taking care of himself, she reached out and offered him a place to stay. What started as a temporary act of kindness ended up changing their family when the Touhys slowly came to think of Michael as their son. Due to his enormous size, Michael was identified early on as a possible football player, and it was only once Leigh Anne helped him realize what special skills he brought to the game that he unlocked his potential and became a star, eventually winning a chance at college and a life he never would have had without the Touhys.
What makes the film work most is the casting. Tim McGraw, a country superstar, gives a natural, unguarded performance, without a trace of ego, that has made me a fan. I couldn’t identify a single note of the guy’s music, but I look forward to seeing more directors make use of him on film. He’s got great chemistry with Bullock, who has rarely been more appealing than she is here, playing a very particular type of Southern woman. Although Sean Touhy’s a success by any standard, the owner of something like 40 franchised restaurants around Memphis, he seems perfectly happy to let his wife run the show at home. She is a force of nature, fearless in the way she bulls through every situation, secure that she is right, no matter what. Once you see Quinton Aaron in action, you understand what motivates Leigh Anne. There’s a gentle decency to him, and he never strikes a false note, no matter what the film demands of him. He faces the same problem that Gabby Sidibe does as she looks to build a career after starring in “Precious,” which is that roles this good written for actors of their physicality are rare, and to some extent, they work in these movies because they inhabit the roles so fully.
John Lee Hancock adapted the film himself, and his script is very simple, very lean, while his directorial style complements the writing perfectly. He exercises restraint at every turn, except perhaps in the opening moments of the film, where Leigh Anne explains why the left tackle is so important to an NFL team, using the Joe Theismann leg break footage to illustrate the point. He plays the hit three times, and on the third one, I was halfway out of my seat on on my way to the door of the screening room, deeply freaked out. Thankfully, the rest of the film is played with a focus on low-key charm and quiet drama, and there’s a warm, human sense of humor that reminds me of what Hancock did in “The Rookie” as well. He demonstrates a real knowledge of the modern South, never overplaying it, and also never tipping it into cartoon. There’s nothing condescending about this film, and it would be so easy for the story to be cloying and insufferable, one of those “white people healing a broken black person” movies that always make me squirm. I don’t think race is the movie’s main concern, though. If anything, the film could be seen as a story of how adoption enriches the lives of both the children and the parents in these families. I’m adopted, and I constantly think about how lucky I am that the people who took me home, who opened their lives to me, turned out to be such wonderful, loving people, and how much I hope they feel like they made the right call sharing their lives with me. I’ve been fortunate enough to father two amazing kids of my own, but I have a strong desire to adopt at some point. It’s only right that I pay back that favor and make sure that someone else gets the same chance I got.
“The Blind Side” isn’t the sort of film that’s going to make my best-of list at the end of the year, but I admire it because it is far better than it has to be. There are many, many examples of this sort of underdog-story heartwarming sports drama, and the formula’s so familiar at this point that it’s hard to sit through. With “The Blind Side,” Hancock proves that he is one of the best at doing this and making it feel authentic, and I think audiences who give this one a try this weekend are going to walk away impressed by what they see.
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