According to “The Blind Side,” Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher was a homeless 17-year- old, sleeping in the school gym, wash- ing his one extra set of clothes in a laundry-room sink, and eating popcorn left behind by basketball fans, when he was rescued by Leigh Anne Touhy, whose children attended the private school where Michael had a scholar- ship. The Touhy family brought “Big Mike” into their home, gave him a bed, bought him a car, taught him to play football, hired him a tutor, and made him part of their family.
Let me say at the outset that I cheer anyone who helps a destitute individual, no matter what the motive. A good thing, even if done for the wrong reasons, is still a good thing.
As the film opens, however, the Touhys’ motives are being challenged by the NCAA’s enforcement division. It is illegal to pay a student athlete or offer any material recruitment benefits, and the Touhys’ altruism could be perceived as unfair influence. Were they simply helping an underprivileged young man, or were they grooming an outstanding offensive tackle for their alma mater, Ole Miss? Of course, we’re supposed to be outraged by this suggestion of impropriety. The Touhys demonstrated throughout the film that they are genuine, wonderful people.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t that impressed with the film when I saw it. Despite all the feel-good things I was hearing about it, I was put off by the poor acting and just a little bit cynical about how the family chose this particular boy. Here’s why.
For a while my children attended a private Southern Christian school much like the one in the movie, and I knew a lot of women like Leigh Anne Touhy. They wore the right clothes, had lunch in the right restaurants, invited the right friends to all the right parties, ran the right volunteer organizations, and made sure the right children were invited to the right birthday parties. They ran the parent organizations and often ran over the coaches. They made big donations, and the board members knew not to get in their way.
In the film, when Leigh Anne turns up her nose at the wide-striped rugby shirts that Michael chooses when she takes him shopping, it put me right back at our private school, where a student once said about my son, “He’s nice and everything, but look at the clothes he wears!” My son often wore wide-striped rugby shirts back then. In fact, so did I. We shopped at the Gap.
Even more disturbing about the private school my children attended was their good 01′ boy attitude about who earned”academic” scholarships. It was surprising – no, disturbing – how well- rounded these “academically gifted” scholarship recipients always turned out to be: everyone of them ended up on the basketball team or the football team. Or both. Meanwhile, those of us who were paying full tuition often found our sons sitting on the bench, watching the scholarship kids play the game. I understood the motive: teams with winning records lead to enthusiastic boosters who donate big bucks to the school. Still, it seemed unfair to me.
So, realizing I was just a little bit biased when I saw “The Blind Side” the first time, I decided to give it another look after it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress. Maybe there was something I’d missed.
After seeing the film a second time, my opinion has not changed. It is a heartwarming story, with many mov- ing moments that tug at the tear ducts. The sight of Michael carefully gathering abandoned popcorn bags at the end of a basketball game, his confession that he has never before slept in a bed or eaten at a dining room table, his chance meet- ing with a brother he hasn’t seen since he was a little child – all these remind us of how much we take for granted: food, shelter, family. They cause us to admire a family who would provide these basic needs for an underprivileged boy.
However, the production values of the film are simply too uneven to war- rant an Oscar nomination. While veterans Sandra Bullock and Kathy Bates put in fine performances, the rest of the cast is mediocre at best. Few of the support- ing actors have impressive credits; most of them have acted only in television, and many of the rest have virtually no film experience. One senses that they are always aware of the camera, always thinking about how they are going to look on screen. Cinematographers call it”shining” for the camera, and these actors shine their hearts out. It’s as though they thought “action” meant “say cheese.”
Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher is probably the most troubling. This is his first role as more than an extra, and his lack of experience shows. His Big Mike is a sweet sad sack, passive to the point of seeming dimwitted. He rocks rhythmically and rubs his palms on his thighs to show he is nervous, actions often demonstrated by those who have mental problems or learning disabilities. By contrast, the real Michael Oher, shown accepting his Ravens jersey and con- versing with sports figures near the end of the film, is bright-eyed, confident, and normal. He has expressed displeasure over the way he is portrayed.
At the other end of the spectrum, Jae Head, who plays the Touhys’ young son S.J., exudes over-the-top pep and cuteness. If the other actors shine, Jae glows with radioactivity. Yes, he’s adorable and enthusiastic, but he isn’t natural. In fact, during a couple of particularly lengthy and precocious monologues, he appears to be reading from a script or teleprompter. He’s cute, but come o n – let’s cut back on the sugar and caffeine. Sandra Bullock (Leigh Anne Touhy)
is one exception. Although I don’t like the kind of woman she portrays, I have to admit that Bullock plays her to perfection. She bullies children and grown- ups alike with sweet-talking Southern charm. As an interior designer she orders $40,000 carpets and $10,000 sofas the way I order a cheeseburger and fries. She takes no nonsense from suppliers, clients, football coaches, or even a threatening drug dealer. As her husband (country singer Tim McGraw) says, “She always gets her way.”
“The Blind Side” probably inspired many viewers to say, “I ought to do something like that.” Its theatrical release between Thanksgiving and Christmas could not have been better timed. The dialogue is often clever and believable, even if it is poorly delivered. But Best Picture? I don’t think so. If this film deserves an Oscar nomination at all, it is for the screenplay and perhaps for Bullock – but not Best Picture