Michael “Big Mike” Oher—the protagonist of “The Blind Side”—has a GPA of 0.6 when he first shows up at Wingate Christian High School in Tennessee. His mother is a crack addict he hasn’t seen for years and his father is nonexistent. He carries one extra shirt around with him in a plastic bag. Some nights he sleeps on a stoop, some nights in the school gym, some nights on his friend Steven’s couch.
Over the course of John Lee Hancock’s captivating new film—based on the true story told in Michael Lewis’s book, “The Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game”—Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) transforms from a troubled orphan of the Memphis projects to a first-round draft pick in the NFL. Placed in a private, predominantly white high school on a whim by Steven’s father, Michael struggles to acclimate to the high academic standards of his new and foreign environment. While walking along a sidewalk in shorts and a t-shirt on a cold November evening, he is spotted by the Tuohys, a wealthy family in an SUV. Their matriarch, Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock), invites him to spend Thanksgiving with her family, eventually taking him in permanently through legal adoption.
The film surprises not so much with the incredible story that it tells, but with the way in which it tells it. It’s clear from the very start that this will be an against-the-odds sports movie (likely a tearjerker) but what’s less expected is the humor that consistently accompanies the serious narrative.
While the film’s subject matter is undoubtedly grave, Hancock—who directed “The Rookie,” another compelling underdog story, in 2002—seems to understand that there is inherent humor in the uncomfortable melding of seismically different socio-economic backgrounds, and he never stops effectively exploiting these moments of drama as simultaneous opportunities for humor. “Who’d have thought we’d have a black son before we knew a democrat?” remarks Leigh Anne’s understanding husband, Sean, played by sometime actor Tim McGraw.
As Michael begins to improve in school, he is allowed to try out for sports and decides to join the spring football team. This pursuit quickly becomes a family affair; the Tuohy’s 10-year-old son, S.J., serves as a tyrannical fitness coach as well as a human dumbbell while Leigh Anne looks after Michael’s mental game. In response to the coach’s frustration at Michael’s apparent lack of aggression as blind-side offensive tackle, Leigh Anne marches onto the gridiron to interrupt practice, explaining to her son that he must protect his quarterback the way he would protect their family. “You can thank me later,” she tells the coach on her way back to the bleachers, Michael’s teammates ogling her as she goes.
Leigh Anne’s relationship with Michael forms the soul of the story. Both characters are limited in what they can verbally communicate to each other, but their silences convey their mutual struggle as they attempt to understand their respective circumstances. As Michael, relative newcomer Aaron is a strong yet vulnerable gentle giant—or, as Leigh Anne affectionately terms him, Ferdinand the Bull, the hero of his favorite children’s book. Bullock, too, wholeheartedly inhabits her role as pushy, driven, no-nonsense Southern wife cum interior decorator, complete with a perfect accent no doubt drawn from her Virginia roots. Kathy Bates also shines as Michael’s tutor, a fanatical devotee of her alma mater, Ole Miss. Once recruitment offers start pouring in, she takes it upon herself to warn Michael away from arch-rival University of Tennessee by convincing him of the body parts buried beneath their football field.
The film eventually gives us the immense satisfaction of seeing footage of the real Michael Oher and the Tuohys at his 2009 draft to the Baltimore Ravens. The extent to which the real-life family resembles their cinematic counterparts is shocking, from the affection of their interactions to their individual fashion sensibilities. We are reminded with these final scenes how closely the film follows its real-life foundation, and how dedicated it remains to its mission: to let the events speak for themselves and relish the humorous moments along the way.
—Staff writer Anna E. Sakellariadis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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