Real-life Tale Of Oher Scores With Inspiring Idea

'The Blind Side' *** ( 3 Stars)

November 20, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

"The Blind Side" has a supremely satisfying wrap-up: photos of football player Michael Oher with his adoptive family and the footage of his selection by the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL draft. There's nothing like that tingle of authenticity coming after a resonant fact-based story. Without restraint or subtlety, but with a lot of heart and energy, this movie tells a real-life tall tale - make that Big and Tall - en route to these closing attractions.

Author Michael Lewis titled one chapter "Freak of Nurture" in his terrific nonfiction source book "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game." The overriding virtue of the movie is that it fleshes out the inspiring idea that a young man from a destructive environment can bloom in a caring one, even if he's already in his teens when he gets there. And it does so with an affection that, in retrospect, makes you wince at Lewis' playful use of "freak."

The writer-director, John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie"), understands football, the expansive energy of the Tuohys, a nouveau riche, Christian family in the New South, and the throttled energy of Oher, who was a homeless adolescent from West Memphis, Tenn., when a Christian private school on the opposite side of town accepted him as a scholarship student.

What makes the story such rich movie material is that its drama and comedy are so inherently visual, starting with this gentle black titan entering a lily-white academy. He casts a giant shadow, physically and emotionally. He attracts sympathetic people such as Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy with his mixture of power and delicacy, and the air of tragedy that hovers over his mysterious past in the inner-city neighborhood called Hurt Village.

The Tuohys are sure-fire movie subjects themselves: She's a svelte interior designer with a prickly funny alertness and a disdain for pointless tradition. He wears simmering amusement on his mug, as if he knows he's won at the game of life as a former college basketball star turned broadcaster and fast-food mini-tycoon.

Sandra Bullock employs her laserlike precision and comic zest for good as Leigh Anne. She fills the vacant spaces of the movie with her purposeful bustle, and she gets to use her underemployed ability to bring herself up short when her calculations or her impulses race ahead of her core emotions. She doesn't sentimentalize Leigh Anne for a moment - the way she portrays Tuohy, she enters mission mode with Oher partly because it answers her needs for an even more rooted and gratifying family life. She's the one who prods Oher's coach into better uses of him on the football field. It's because she knows this fatherless youth has no reason to trust men. And she recognizes that his "protective instincts" can be a weapon on the gridiron.

Bullock's Leigh Anne and Tim McGraw's Sean appear to have staying power as well as fun. You could say he anchors her, if you can imagine an anchor that curves with an effortless twinkle. McGraw is a natural as an actor; he's calming in the best way.

So is Quinton Aaron, who, as Oher, must convey the awakening consciousness inside a fellow who has never learned to communicate. His huge presence envelops the film and minimizes the damage of its reliance on "big moments." Kathy Bates brings her always-welcome gumption to the role of Oher's tutor, and the too-little-seen Kim Dickens invests her small role as the teacher who first sees Oher's potential with understated conviction.

But the rest of the cast isn't in the same class. Shockingly, Ray McKinnon, a gifted Southern actor and filmmaker, turns Oher's coach into a cartoon. And the director indulges Jae Head's amateurish boy's-boyishness as Oher's new little brother, Sean Jr.

It's understandable that Hancock doesn't attempt to encompass the full scope of Lewis' book. Still, it's regrettable that he never figures out how to express Oher's extraordinary physical intelligence. What's worse is that, as a filmmaker, he lays everything out too neatly. He practically wires the audience to react to the moments when Leigh Anne sees that Oher has folded his bedding or, later, notices him sitting alone at the dining room table eating his Thanksgiving dinner while the rest of the family members scarf down their food and watch football.

By the end, the director brings everything too glaringly to light in "The Blind Side." But the film still has the cheering clatter of home truth. It speaks of faith, hope and charity with the down-to-earth tones and rhythms of a high school percussion band in a Thanksgiving Day parade.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references.)

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Leigh Anne Tuohy), Tim McGraw (Sean Tuohy), Quinton Aaron (Michael Oher) and Kathy Bates (Miss Sue).

Credits: A Warner Bros. release. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Running time 2:08

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