A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2009
2009, PG, 130 mins.
2009, PG, 130 mins.
Sandra Bullock: Leigh Anne Tuohy / Tim McGraw: Sean Tuohy / Quentin Aaron: Michael Oher / Kathy Bates: Miss Sue / Lily Collins: Collins Tuohy / Jae Head: S.J. Tuohy
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, based on the book by "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" by Michael Lewis
ascending to the athletics heights of playing right tackle for the
Baltimore Ravens, Michael Oher had anything but an easy trip to NFL fame
born to a crack cocaine-addicted mother named Denise Oher, whose obsessive
penchant for drugs all but ruled her out as being a positive role model
and nurturing figure for her child in his formative years.
Michael Oher’s school life drastically suffered; he was
apparently forced to repeat both the first and second grades and attended eleven
different schools during his first nine years.
His success with foster care and parents were mixed at best, and by
the time he was16-years-old he lived through tough periods where he had
no fixed address. As for
Oher’s father? He was
murdered while Oher was a senior in high school and by this time he was essentially
a “bum” that lived on the streets, infrequently attended school, and
possessed a GPA that was barely north of zero at 0.6.
Yet - as
astounding as it seems - Oher managed to graduate high school,
raised his GPA to acceptable levels (2.52 to be precise) in order to be
able to play football for the University of Mississippi, and later
would cement his status as a true underdog hero when he was drafted 23rd
overall by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft.
did he accomplish so much with while being so economically and socially
A filthy rich Christian family adopted him.
that last comment with a noticeable amount of sarcasm, but I am not in any
way trying to devalue the life story of this man, who clearly was born
into an overwhelmingly impoverished life that had very little, if any,
parental sustenance. Most of
Oher's childhood and adolescent existence was indescribably
malicious. The underlining
theme of his story (which was partly represented in Michael Lewis 2006
book, THE BLIND SIDE: EVOLUTION OF THE GAME) is noble minded and rousing:
its core message is that no matter how profoundly disadvantaged one is,
when given the right advantages and encouragement from others, finding
long-lasting success is attainable. This
is a story that is worth exploring, but the unfortunate thing is that John
Lee Hancock’s (THE ALAMO and THE ROOKIE)
morphs most of Oher’s bleak and dark storyline into a contrived, banal,
annoyingly saccharine, and exasperatingly audience-pleasing entertainment.
Even worse: the central focus of the film seems less on Oher
himself and more on the “heroic” privileged white family that swooped
in to save him from his ghettoized existence. THE BLIND SIDE blindly does a huge disservice to Oher’s
unlikely and incredible rise to academic and athletic success.
film itself is innocent and sweet enough, but it’s major misstep is that
it is way, way too sweet for its own good, not to mention that there is
way, way too much softening of the edges to Oher’s dreary childhood
life. If anything, his
life with his mother and later on the streets is only given cursory and
fleeting glimpses in the overall 130-minute film (we get expositional
dialogue that describes his mom as a crack addict, but that’s about it).
Instead, THE BLIND SIDE would rather hone in on the rosy, sassy,
and condescendingly feel-good sentimentality of Oher’s experience with the
upper class Memphis family that became his ultimate saviors.
That, and Oher is never fundamentally developed as a
three-dimensional and intriguing presence in the film: he is indefensibly
reduced to being a prop/mascot to embellish the laudable selflessness of
the family that rescued him. His
personal struggles, as a result, are not just sanitized; they are scrubbed
with Ajax and then splashed with bleach.
overall portrayal of the family is also undesirably handled; they are the
Tuohys, Leigh Anne and Sean, whom at the time had a son and daughter of
their own and lived a life of cozy affluence.
Now, I am sure that the real Tuohys were a gracious, hospitable, and
caring foster family for Oher, but THE BLIND SIDE takes so many calculated
strides to paint these people as utterly faultless and saintly.
Even though the wife is a staunch Republican Fundamentalist
Christian and a member of the NRA, her and her family in the film are
essentially without fail. What we have here is a monumentally squeaky clean, do-gooder,
and picture perfect 1950’s family unit, right down to the wholeheartedly
demasculanized father figure (doing everything his wife says without
question) and two cute, adorable, and readily obedient kid archetypes (the
beautiful teen achiever/cheerleader with a heart of gold and the
pre-pubescent, spunky, and oh-so-swell boy that finds joy in anything).
As affable and noble minded as the Tuohys are in real life, in the
film they never feel like a plausible family occupying a modern setting:
it’s like they just walked off the set of PLEASANTVILLE.
film begins it is the day before Thanksgiving and Leigh Anne (Sandra
Bullock) and Sean (Tim McGraw) are driving one of their overprized sedans
when they spot one of their kids’ classmates at Christian Wingate
School, Michael (Quinton Aaron), who is a pudgy, immensely huge, but
docile and bashful 17-year-old outcast.
Leigh Anne, being an impulsive, determined, but gentile southern
belle, decides to approach the teen and offers him to stay the night in
their mansion. He stays the
night and ends up staying through most of Thanksgiving, until day-by-day
begin to realize that “Big Mike” has absolutely no future back home in
the projects with his cocaine afflicted mother, let alone living a life on
the streets. Yet, because the
are the epitome of kind-hearted Christian folk, they all unanimously
decide to allow Michael to stay with them permanently.
home life with the Tuohy’s is paralleled with his academic one at Wingate
School, whose football coach sees huge potential in him.
The problem is that Michael is a failing student.
He can barely read, write, and, for the most part, barely speaks or
communicates with anyone. Yet,
with the insurmountable kindness and support of the Tuohys – and with
the help of a tutor – Michael begins a long and difficult process to
raise his scholastic achievements to a higher level, which goes hand in
hand with learning the ropes as a football player on the high school team.
Michael inevitably finds success on and off the football field,
which culminates in his life-affirming decision as to which college to
attend and, no need for a spoiler, his drafting to the NFL.
Oher’s life is a remarkable one: an African American boy, a product of
the West Memphis streets, ends up graduating high school, going to college, and
then playing professional football. Yet,
THE BLIND SIDE manages to fumble this remarkable story so often with how
systematically hard it tries to be feel-good…all…the…time.
Yes, Leigh Anne Tuohy should be giving commendation for her
outpouring of compassion for Michael: I believe that these real-life figures
helped Michael less because of the color of his skin and more because she
saw a troubled teen, going no where in life, that needed assistance to
better himself for the future. Unfortunately,
I just simply could not believe that the Tuohys in the film were as
spotless and too-good-to-be-true as presented.
There is not one hint of conflict or tension present throughout
much of the film because, in the end, this family lives a perfect
existence of always getting along and never debating or questioning each other.
They are so unanimous in their goodness and hospitality that the
only real conflict in the film is whether Michael will make it with this
family. Since it appears
right from the get go that he will without much trouble, all of the
dramatic momentum that the film could have generated is jettisoned.
Michael is rarely a compelling figure of rooting interest here.
Aaron plays him with mostly the same blank, dopey eyed, and
reserved expression on his face throughput the film.
Not only that, but as far as underdog sports heroes overcoming all
odds go, Michael is painted so simplistically complacent: he’s never rude,
disobedient, crass, and shows very little interest in becoming an individual
with an assertive head on his shoulders.
He’s kind of just a fringe character that is used to prop up the
Tuohys to a higher pillar of hero worship.
The sad and cruel irony of THE BLIND SIDE is that the so-called
underdog hero gets more marginalized as the film progresses; he’s always
a shadow in he background of the film’s constant recognition of the
righteousness of the family he lives with.
brings us to Bullock, whose portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy
as a figure of moral assertiveness, pluck, and a steely-eyed willingness
and resolve is certainly the stuff of obvious Oscar nomination baiting.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Leigh Anne and her family are so
rich, so well off, and so secure in the film that they have no real
sweeping character arcs: Leigh Anne is essentially the same person from
beginning to end. Notwithstanding
that, but Bullock is never really truly convincing as a slick, sliver
tongued, gumption-filled, and philanthropic mother heroine: she seems less
natural and believable, mostly because she seems more sincere at grasping
for Academy gold. Even less
credible are many of her preposterous confrontations she has with various
characters in the film: One is a real, incredulous howler, as she goes
right to a gang of hoods back home in Michael’s projects and warns
them - with a Dirty Harry-esque tone - that any threat to her son is a
“threat to her” as well. Call
me crazy, but the sight of a prosperous, white, blonde woman instilling
fear in these gang bangers borders on the ridiculous.
Bullock, however, does occupy the only great scene of the film, an
opening prologue where she narrates a quick history of the left tackle’s
importance to football and how Joe Theismann’s 1985 career ending injury
paved the way for Michael’s NFL date with destiny.
Oh, and there is one great line in the film, provided by Tim McGraw:
"Who would have thought that we'd have a black child before we let a
Democrat into our home."
Oh, and there is one great line in the film, provided by Tim McGraw: "Who would have thought that we'd have a black child before we let a Democrat into our home."
Aside from that aforementioned ingenious opening, and a few late (make that oh-so-late) scenes in the film where Michael confronts his past in the projects, THE BLIND SIDE lacks a compelling and gripping edge; there’s just too much annoying kowtowing to the white family of privilege and less focus on the real hero of the film, Michael Oher himself. Even though it may not have been intentional for the makers involved, THE BLIND SIDE sort of hazardously stumbles close to indirect racism. What we have, beyond the film’s broad and shockingly simplistic veneer, is a tale of white paternalism succeeding over black societal outcasts. The white heroes are the only conduit and form of rescue for the disenfranchised and downtrodden black victim. At one point one of Leigh Anne’s snobby and uptight friends asks her if the compassion she has shown towards Michael is a form of white guilt morphed into charity. She matter-of-factly dismisses that accusation. I am sure that the real life Tuohys did so as well. As for how the movie presents this conundrum…I’m not sure I’m convinced.