Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Blind Side: Touchdown!

The Blind Side (2009) • View trailer for The Blind Side
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for one brief scene involving drugs, violence and sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.09
Buy DVD: The Blind Side • Buy Blu-Ray: The Blind Side [Blu-ray]

Some true stories are so wonderful, they simply beg to be made into films.

The saga of All-American football star Michael Oher is just such a story.

And the fact that The Blind Side represents the second half of the one-two punch re-igniting Sandra Bullock's career  following this summer's The Proposal  is the icing on the cake.
Young S.J. (Jae Head) takes it upon himself to crack the whip as personal
trainer and coach for his "big brother," Michael (Quinton Aaron); the result is
but one of many wonderfully uplifting scenes in this film.

Bullock must've gotten a better agent, or perhaps improved her own industry savvy. After a string of ill-conceived comedies and laughably overwrought melodramas  encompassing junk such as 28 Days, Miss Congeniality 2, The Lake House and Premonition  Bullock's career seemed on a slow swirl into the toilet.

Frankly, I couldn't understand why she kept getting hired.

But she has rebounded with pizazz, and then some. Her comic timing was perfect in The Proposal, and her work in The Blind Side stands with the finest of her career. Her performance as the aristocratic Leigh Anne Tuohy, who finds her soft spot after sheltering a homeless teen, is an engaging blend of tart one-liners, feisty compassion, grim determination and quite persuasive vulnerability.

Bullock makes Leigh Anne the original unstoppable force: a mama bear who'd do anything to protect her cubs ... even if one of them outsizes her by ridiculous extremes.

And Bullock is just one of this film's well-crafted elements. Director/scripter John Lee Hancock knows his way around an underdog sports saga, having similarly charmed us with 2002's The Rookie, and its uplifting tale of miracle pitcher Jim Morris. Hancock blends just the right amounts of poignance, suspense and gentle humor; The Blind Side  adapted from Michael Lewis' book  has plenty of chuckles, but never at the expense of its characters. We feel for them and laugh with them, never at them.

The story begins as the massive Michael  invariably dubbed "Big Mike"  is accepted, with considerable reluctance, into the high-tone (and very white) Wingate Christian School in Memphis, Tenn. The teenager is championed by coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon, in a small but nicely modulated part), who sees potential gridiron glory. The trouble, alas, is that Michael's grades  barely north of rock-bottom zero  prohibit any sports activities.

And so the unusually quiet boy sits in class after class, not even trying to participate, while most of Wingate's teachers wonder why they're putting up with him.

The situation is even worse as Michael leaves school each day. Having grown up virtually abandoned in the poverty-stricken Memphis projects  cruelly called Hurt Village  the boy has no real home. But his peaceful, oddly regal nature is sensed by 10-year-old S.J. Tuohy (Jae Head, marvelously engaging and cute as a button), who makes an effort to befriend his much larger school mate.

That serves as an entry point one cold and rainy evening, as the Tuohy family drives home, and Leigh Anne spots Michael walking slowly down the road. Buoyed by S.J.'s comfortable recognition, she confronts Michael  gently but firmly, not wanting to bruise his dignity  and discerns a soul in crisis. And so she bundles him into the car and offers him a warm couch for the night.

In a palatial home that must seem like an ancestral British estate to the stunned Michael.

Later that evening, thinking out loud with her husband, Sean (country music superstar Tim McGraw), Leigh Anne wonders if she'll have cause to regret this impulsive decision. But when she descends the following morning and finds the sheets neatly folded on the couch  and Michael quietly trying to leave, perhaps worrying that these rich white folks might have come to their senses  Leigh Anne doesn't need to know anything else about this young man.

Any lingering doubts are erased when, as her family celebrates Thanksgiving dinner in their usual fashion, by sprawling out in the living room and watching football, Michael takes his plate into the dining room and sits at the empty table. Bullock's expressive face, as Leigh Anne registers this behavior, is a model for the richly shaded performance she delivers throughout the entire film.

We know what's coming, and yet we still smile broadly: Leigh Anne snags the remote, silences the TV and orders the family into the dining room, to enjoy a proper Thanksgiving dinner with their guest.

From that moment on, Hancock has earned our trust, and has us in the palm of his directorial hand. However this story plays out, we've no doubt he'll respect his subject's honor ... and our intelligence.

I really don't want to give away any further details; experiencing this story, as it unfolds, is half the fun. Suffice it to say that minor miracles lead to larger ones; one of Michael's teachers, more observant and open-minded than the rest, realizes that he is, indeed, paying attention. Watching as Michael builds up his grade-point average, while coming to terms with life in the Tuohy household, is only the first act.

Things really kick into gear when Michael does, at last, qualify for Wingate's football team. And Leigh Anne is at his side every step of the way, frequently exploiting the one facet of Michael's spotty academic and personal records that is off the chart in the positive direction: a ranking of 98 percent in "protective instincts."

As he also did with The Rookie, Hancock cleverly juxtaposes his central drama with easily digested information about the sport in question. Lewis' book, while ostensibly about Michael Oher, also dissects the evolving importance of the position of left tackle in football, instigated by a single unforgettable play: Lawrence Taylor's career-ending sack of quarterback Joe Theismann in November 1985.

Hancock has Bullock relate this information early on, in a voice-over that speaks volumes about both Leigh Anne's character and her passion for football. It's no more than a brief prologue, but again demonstrates the skill with which Hancock addresses every element of his film.

He also coaxes marvelous performances from everybody in his cast. As strong a presence as she is, Bullock is nearly overshadowed by newcomer Quinton Aaron, who delivers just the right blend of sadness, quiet pride and deeply buried spirit as Michael. Because this young man speaks so infrequently, Aaron must do most of his acting with his eyes and body language; he succeeds on all levels.

His scenes with young Jae Head's S.J. are wonderful, particularly once the little boy takes it upon himself to be Michael's personal trainer. We haven't seen such a richly entertaining  and intimately revealing  workout sequence since Sylvester Stallone finally charged up those concrete steps in the first Rocky.

Kathy Bates pops up in the third act as Miss Sue, a private tutor hired to help Michael with his school work. Bates is a spitfire as always, and she elevates this small part into a work of art.

McGraw is properly laid-back as Sean; he comfortably wears a role that demands he do little but agree with Leigh Anne at all times, and as graciously as possible. Lily Collins also gets some choice moments as Collins, the Tuohys' teenage daughter.

Hancock concludes his film with some photographs of the actual Michael Oher and his adoptive family; the all-encompassing affection flowing in all directions is easy to spot ... as is the fact that Aaron, massive as he is, doesn't dwarf the Tuohys nearly as much as the actual Oher.

Ratings-conscious parents may be concerned about this film's PG-13, the result of one perilous  and absolutely necessary  confrontation between Michael and his peers at Hurt Village. Don't let that be an excuse to shelter adolescents from this warm-hearted and uplifting story; viewers of all ages will profit from its many inspirational messages and core truth:

Nothing is impossible, when armed with determination and love.

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