A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2009

BLIND SIDE jj

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

Besides ascending to the athletics heights of playing right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, Michael Oher had anything but an easy trip to NFL fame and notoriety. 

He was 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. 

So, how did he accomplish so much with while being so economically and socially disadvantaged?  

Simple: A filthy rich Christian family adopted him. 

I made 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

As the 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 the Tuohys 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 Tuohys are the epitome of kind-hearted Christian folk, they all unanimously decide to allow Michael to stay with them permanently. 

Michael’s 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. 

Seriously, 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.  

That…and 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. 

This 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."

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.

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