Directed by: John Lee Hancock (The Alamo)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Ray McKinnon, Kathy Bates, Jae Head
John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side is the kind of film that works on you while you’re watching it—even if you suspect it shouldn’t—but is finally like a second helping of dessert that leaves you feeling ever so slightly sick afterwards, especially when you start unraveling its messages. The fact that it’s made with some degree of skill by writer/director Hancock and played with even more skill by most of its cast does nothing to mitigate the overall feeling of condescension and shameless manipulation. It may be the most effective shameless manipulation money can buy, but it’s still shameless manipulation.
The film is based on the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron, Be Kind Rewind), a poor, virtually orphaned black kid who gets adopted by a wealthy white family and goes on to football glory. It’s surefire crowd-pleaser material, the sort that always has been no matter what form it has appeared in. The kicker here is that it’s true—albeit undoubtedly Hollywoodized, simplified and homogenized. It’s a professionally done tale of the uplifting variety—no different, at bottom, than when Cary Grant and Betsy Drake adopted sullen, physically-challenged Clifford Tatum Jr. and taught him how to be a part of a family in Room for One More (1952). Oh, wait, that was fact-based, too, come to think of it.
The major difference, of course, is that what we have here is an upscale white family adopting a black kid—and that difference is compounded by the fact that it’s an upscale white family of card-carrying NRA-member Christian Republicans. Not only do they adopt a black kid, but they also hire a tutor (Kathy Bates)—a Democrat—to help raise his grades so he can get a football scholarship. Well, why not? There are enough movies out there that work on liberal guilt; it’s high time conservatives have one they can call their own, I suppose. The problem with the whole thing is that it all seems just a bit hollow and condescending, no matter how many times Hancock drops in lines (never really backed up) about how Michael is changing the family, instead of the other way around. OK, so he gets them to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a table like a family rather than watch football while eating.
What makes the movie work is mostly in the acting. People always seem so shocked when Sandra Bullock pulls off a credible dramatic performance, but she’s done it before—not so much like in the overrated Crash (2004), but in the under-seen Infamous (2006) and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). For that matter, she’s done it better, but here she’s been given one of those “strong-willed” characters with a sharp tongue that immediately grabs everyone’s attention. Oh, she’s good at it, but it almost seems too calculated and easy. On the other hand, country singer Tim McGraw breezes through the film on laid-back charm—and the wisdom of knowing there’s no sense in trying to out-act the star. That leaves Quentin Aaron as Michael, who manages to convey much more in his expressions than the screenplay offers him.
The rest of the cast is pretty much reduced to types—ranging from the wisecracking kid, to the Teacher Who Made a Difference, to the friends who don’t understand, to you name it. Do they work? Yes, within their limitations, they work just fine while they’re on-screen. That’s how such characters got to be types in the first place. But to what end—other than making the viewer feel uplifted—is all this? What message is being conveyed by a movie about a kid who escaped from the ghetto and avoided becoming a part of it by “just closing his eyes” to what was going on around him (his mother’s instructions so he wouldn’t see bad things)? I’m not sure, but it leaves me uneasy to say the least. Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drugs and sexual references.