Gentle giant gets lucky break

Posted: Thursday, December 03, 2009

'The Blind Side'

Ap Photo/Warner Bros., Ralph Nelson
Ap Photo/Warner Bros., Ralph Nelson
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros., Quint Aaron and Sandra Bullock are shown in a scene from "The Blind Side."

Alcon Entertainment

2 hours, 8 minutes

Sandra Bullock has never been what you might call a "serious" actress. While her contemporaries were playing cancer victims, queens, and depressed poets, Bullock drove the bus in "Speed," put on a tiara in "Miss Congeniality," and got to play helpless to both Stallone and Wesley Snipes in "Demolition Man." She's a lightweight, but is good natured and entertaining enough to have maintained a successful career.

Now, for the first time, Bullock's name is being bandied about alongside those of Streep, Kidman, and Helen Mirren for Oscar contention. Does she deserve it? Not really. Is her performance one of the best parts of this week's heart-warming based-on-a-true-story, "The Blind Side?" Sure.

In portraying the no-nonsense southern socialite Leigh Anne Tuohy, Sandra Bullock creates a memorable character, and handles the somewhat weightier material with ease. But there's just not enough going on with this film to garner any serious award possibility.

The story centers around Michael Oher, Big Mike to those around him, a gentle giant if there ever was one. Homeless, bouncing from couch to couch, Mike gets a lucky break when the father of a friend convinces the coach of an exclusive Memphis private school to consider the boy for free admission.

With his size, Mike's athletic potential is obvious, but academics and a stable home life have to come first. The latter arrives in the person of Tuohy who, upon realizing that Oher is spending nights at the gym or laundromat to stay warm, brings him home to her family.

Michael starts out on the couch, eventually moving to a bedroom of his own, becoming a full-fledged member of the family.

His grades are a mess, but with the help of a private tutor and a few dedicated teachers, he's eventually eligible to play ball. Surprisingly, this too turns out to be a challenge, as Michael has no apparent aggressive or violent tendencies to be channelled positively through sports.

After a few fits and starts, however, football becomes an area where the boy can shine. He plays offensive lineman, an area for which he has particular acumen because, as the movie tells us, Oher scored in the 85th percentile for "protective instincts." I'm not sure which standardized test includes that particular category, but maybe it's particular to Tennessee. Football success leads to inevitable college recruitment, and in the end, Michael Oher is drafted by the Baltimore Ravens to play professional ball.

All's well that ends well, right? Well, actually, yes, and that's part of why this movie, entertaining though it is, shouldn't win any awards beyond a moderately successful box office.

Movies about true struggle always have some element of serious conflict. "The Blind Side" is missing this aspect. Yes, there's some conflict. Michael comes from a broken home and there are vague memories of being taken from his drug addled mother by the state. But these memories have been mostly repressed or dealt with, and provide little more than window dressing to the story.

As well, Oher's tenuous connection to the streets and the tenement neighborhood where his mother once lived is offered up as an element of dangerous drama in the boy's life, but in reality he hadn't seen his mother for years and had almost no chance of slipping into the gangsta tarpit that swallows so many young inner-city black youths.

Oher's story is a nice one, and I'm glad to have heard it, but to imagine that his struggle in any way mirrors that of his peers is preposterous. Michael Oher won the lottery, plain and simple. The Tuohys are rich -- really rich. Not Bill Gates wealthy, but by owning a group of nearly 100 fast food restaurants, Leah Anne and her husband are able to provide more than just moral support.

When Michael's grades look as though they may not be good enough for consideration into one of the many prestigious southern football schools that are recruiting him, the Tuohy's hire some educational help. Not a hungry college student or a retired substitute teacher looking to supplement her income, but a professional tutor with impeccable credentials. And does she just show up from 3 to 5 on Thursdays for a little review? No -- she's on constant call, even moving to college with Michael to guide him through his education.

Good for him -- but it doesn't make for the most compelling story telling. Had the filmmakers wanted to address an actual serious issue, the theme of homelessness in teens would have been a worthwile subject to tackle. Even here on the peninsula there's an epidemic of kids from less than ideal circumstances, bouncing from couch to couch to floor, floating rootless -- sometimes making it to school, just as often not. These children are homeless, as sure as if they lived under the freeway overpass, but their plight is not nearly as showy or easy to define. This is not their movie, however.

Bullock's acting is good. There's no question about that, and the accent that she affects, though a little irritating at first, is right on for the character. She has the obligatory moment of outrage at her socialite friends' reaction to her charity project, and gives the heartwarming speech to her boy on the football field.

With more actual drama, perhaps Bullock could have taken the character of Leigh Anne Tuohy to the next level, but as it is, she remains at just slightly better than a TV movie-of-the-week. Also fine are Tim McGraw as hubby Sean Tuohy and newcomer Quinton Aaron as the quiet but determined Michael Oher.

"The Blind Side" is a nice little movie that, because it offers Sandra Bullock a chance to do more than smile and quip, is being painted with a brush it doesn't really deserve. Go in expecting to see exactly what the movie appears to be and turn a blind eye to all this Oscar speculation -- you won't be disappointed.

Grade: B

"The Blind Side" is rated PG-13 for very brief violence, mild language, and a few sexual references.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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