After swinging for the fences and scoring a sleeper success with “The Rookie” (2002), writer-director John Lee Hancock takes the field with “The Blind Side,” another uplifting and entertaining feel-good, fact-based sports drama. The combo of top-billed Sandra Bullock’s marquee allure and a true-life story with well-nigh irresistible emotional appeal probably would be enough to fill megaplex stadiums at any time of the year. But this Nov. 20 Warners release is particularly well positioned to be a four-quadrant hit as the consensus choice of family auds during the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Based on material in “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” the attractively packaged pic occasionally runs the risk of straining credibility — or, worse, inviting skepticism — while dramatizing the particulars of what was, evidently, a best-case scenario for all parties involved. Indeed, there’s not even the threat of an insurmountable obstacle until the final half-hour.
But then again, it’s difficult to imagine anything that could long impede or contain the force of nature that is Leigh Anne Tuohy, the feisty Memphis belle played by Bullock with equal measures of acerbic sass, steel-willed brass and unabashed sentiment. Bullock is thoroughly convincing in the role — right down to her credible accent and the blonding of her normally brown tresses — and she’s not afraid to occasionally keep auds guessing as to whether Leigh Ann’s actions are driven by a heart of gold or a whim of iron.
Both motives appear to be at work when Leigh Ann impulsively invites into her family’s palatial home one of her daughter’s classmates: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), an immense African-American teenager from the poor side of town. Virtually homeless and barely educated after years of neglect, Michael can scarcely speak, much less read. But he shows promise as a football player, and that’s more than enough for a desperate coach (Ray McKinnon) to finagle a way for Michael attend his tony Memphis private school.
After that, it’s up to Leigh Ann and her family — lovingly tolerant husband Sean (Tim McGraw), lovely teen daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and wiseacre young son SJ (Jae Head) — to make sure Michael takes advantage of his good fortune and actually learns a few things from his teachers.
If “The Blind Side” weren’t based on a true story — the real Oher ultimately was adopted by the Tuohys, thrived in his new environment and currently plays for the Baltimore Ravens — it likely would be dissed by dismissive critics as a simplistic white-liberal fantasy. (It’ll be interesting to see how many reviewers won’t be able to resist comparing the film with a certain other recent drama about an overweight, illiterate African-American teen who transcends humble origins.)
In fact, the veracity of the storyline won’t be enough to prevent some of the professionally outraged from accusing “Blind Side” of implying that underprivileged black folks must rely on rich, well-intentioned white folks — Leigh Ann is a successful interior decorator, and her husband owns a gazillion fast-food restaurants — to escape the slums and be all they can be.
But what happened, happened. And even though Hancock applies more than a smidge of sugar-coating to his dramatization, “The Blind Side” remains involving, affecting and, for the most part, emotionally honest. Better still, the pic has an insightful and evenhanded view of racial and political realities in the contemporary South.
Leigh Anne is disappointed but not entirely surprised by the not-so-veiled racism of her well-to-do-friends, which the pic dutifully acknowledges. On the other hand, Leigh Anne and Sean fleetingly own up to prejudices of their own after hiring a left-leaning tutor (zestfully played by Kathy Bates) for Michael. “Who ever thought,” Sean remarks, “we would have a black son before we knew a Democrat?”
Newcomer Aaron gracefully treads a fine line, playing Michael as neither dullard nor idiot savant, but making him emotionally vulnerable, painfully self-aware and surprisingly resilient. Better still, Aaron more than holds his own opposite Bullock, enabling the pic to come off as something far more rewarding and complex than a mere star vehicle.
Country music superstar McGraw again evidences quietly impressive thesping ability, while Collins and Head ably complete the family unit. Adriane Lenox makes every moment count in her brief but layered cameo as Michael’s crack-addicted mom, and actor-filmmaker Ray McKinnon demonstrates fine comic chops as a character who couldn’t be more unlike the white-trash interloper he so memorably essays in “That Evening Sun.”
Tech values are first-rate, with Atlanta locations adequately subbing for Memphis locales.