Lack of grit, nuance handicaps feel-good football movie

by kelly o'brien | 11/23/09 11:00pm

by Courtesy of / The Dartmouth

"The Blind Side" (2009) tells the story of a hopeless and homeless black teenager fighting desperately to overcome obstacles correlated with race, poverty and his mother's drug addiction and it starts with a Sandra Bullock voice-over about football.

If that isn't indicative of the movie's flaws, I don't know what is.

There's nothing particularly bad about "The Blind Side" except that it could have been so much better. The film is based off of a powerful true story about Michael "Big Mike" Oher (Quinton Aaron), a poor black teenager who is taken in by a well-to-do white couple, the Touhys (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw).

Unfortunately, director and co-writer John Lee Hancock is unwilling to deal with the darker and more gritty and difficult aspects of the story, which is perhaps why he chooses to tell the story from the perspective of the Touhys, instead of that of Michael.

Sean and Leigh Anne Touhy live on the wealthy side of Memphis, where their children, S.J. and Collins, attend Wingate Christian School. When she sees Big Mike a new student recruited for his athletic abilities walking alone in the rain, Leigh Anne realizes that he has no where to stay, and offers Big Mike the family's couch for the night.

As Leigh Anne begins to make the arrangement more permanent, she realizes the desperation of Michael's situation.

There are some touching moments as Michael becomes part of the Touhy family and adjusts to life as a black student in an all-white school but they're touching in an expected way that cheapens the true weight of the story.

This same hesitance to address Big Mike's true struggles is evident in the filmmaking: Hancock and cinematographer Alar Kivilo shoot the upper-class community of Memphis with crisp colors and bright lighting that perfectly accentuates the picture-perfect conformity of white-bread America.

The problem is that Michael's impoverished neighborhood is covered with the same sheen.

In one scene, Leigh Anne and Michael return to Michael's mother's apartment in the projects to collect whatever belongings he has. Leigh Anne stands out like, well, a wealthy white woman in a brand-new BMW would in an affordable-housing neighborhood.

Even as Michael passes a group of his thuggish, mocking acquaintances, it is hard to see them as projecting anything other than a stereotypical facade of intimidation. Knowing that the film is based on a true story helps, because we can imagine how Michael must have had to fight to avoid falling into the same trap as some of his peers but we still can't see any real danger on screen.

I suspect that Hancock chose to shy away from the tough underpinnings of the story because Sandra Bullock and football are the bigger marketable commodities.

For the most part, it's not a bad decision to rely on Bullock to entertain she's charismatic enough to pull off the feisty and strong-willed Leigh Anne, and Hancock lets her run with it.

For a while, we're smitten by her sexy, sassy demeanor, but, eventually, Leigh Anne's stunts interrupting football practice to lecture Michael, telling off a lazy social worker and threatening a gang leader with the .22 she keeps in her Louis Vuitton purse become tiresome and a little exaggerated.

It seems strange to tell the story of a teenager trying to overcome all odds and get a college education when none of it seems very difficult for him.

We don't see much of Big Mike's background before his being taken in by the Touhys, and once that happens we're sure that he'll end up okay.

It's true there are some emotionally resonant moments between Michael and the Touhys, but they serve only to satisfy us for a while as we are swept towards the happy ending we've never really doubted.

A tip to Mr. Hancock: Happy endings are all the happier when we aren't sure they're coming.