Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Blind Side: A Ladybrain Review

Movies that don't open in the number one box office slot rarely jump to number one later. --The Blind Side was a sleeper hit, jumping to number one after three weeks against films like Twilight-sequel New Moon. The film's success was especially surprising since it was so fraught with early production woes--reportedly, when Julia Roberts turned down the starring role, Fox wanted to re-write the screenplay as a father-son film. Fox seemingly had no faith in the draw of a film about a white woman and a black teenager, but it clearly resonated with audiences, and garnered two Oscar nominations--Best Picture, and Best Actress for Sandra Bullock's role as a sassy Southerner.

The Blind Side tells the true story of wealthy, white woman Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), who adopts and advocates for a homeless, African-American teenager who attends school with her two children. Admitted to a private Christian school for his athletic potential, Michael Oher (Quintin Aaron) was a stranger and a pariah among his rich, white peers. After years of turnover in the foster care system, Oher catches Tuohy's attention when he walks out of a school event without a coat in freezing temperatures. After agressively asking Oher for information about just how messed up his life is--a mom he can't locate, no home, no weather-appropriate clothing--Tuohy takes it upon herself to house, feed, clothe and eventually adopt Oher. She does this gradually, at first offering up simply a place to sleep and a Thanksgiving meal, working up to getting Oher proper legal papers and a driver's license, before asking Oher how he would feel about making the Tuohys his official, legal guardians.

In the end (and this should be no secret if you have any sense of what a strategically-placed Rob Thomas song means in a trailer) the Tuohys, especially Leigh Anne, change Oher's life by giving him a social and economic leg-up, allowing him to then pursue football (in real life, Oher earned a football scholarship at Ole Miss and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens).

For a based-on-a-true-story sports movie, The Blind Side is surprisingly well-crafted, and the details make all the difference. The film was lucky to have the star-power, humor and talent of Bullock, who is likeable and sincere in her role. She carries the film, especially considering the dearth of speaking lines and very understated performance of her foil and costar Aaron, who comes across as very much a secondary character. In some ways, even though the film is "about" Oher and his unlikely success story, Leigh Anne is the star, to the extent that some have criticized Oher's depiction as little more than a cataylst to showcase one white woman's greatness. It would have been nice for Aaron's character to showcase more personality and less brute strength, but the existing dynamic could be partially a result of Bullock steamrolling everyone else with her acting chops.

Aside from Bullock, there are a few other stand-out performance in the film. Cathy Bates is great, as always, as Oher's tutor, and the supporting roles of the Tuohy kids and Leigh Anne's husband, Sean, are mostly very endearing. The best of the supporting roles, though, is that of Adriane Lenox as Oher's drug-addicted mother. One scene showing Oher's mother and Tuohy talking about motherhood, poverty and addiction is particularly well-executed. Scenes like this set The Blind Side apart from the made-for-TV world to which most true-story films are relegated. The scene showcased considerable writing and acting talent, and injected unexpected sympathy for Oher's mother, rather than judgement about her addiction.

Similarly, a scene where Oher runs across his brother busing a table at a restaurant where Oher just dined with the Tuohys, the realities and effects of poverty are really driven home. This world that Oher is from is one of crime and instability, which in the real-world go hand in hand with poverty and racism. But in the movie world of The Blind Side, the audience doesn't see the reasons why a predominantly black Memphis project would be overrun with crime, drugs and violence. Out here in reality, it's important to realize how racism enters into the poverty equation. And if it's important in reality, it's important in depictions of reality, so audiences should be proactive and pay attention to the racial messages in films like this.

Some have noted more insidious race issues in this film, and rightly so. The film did, at least in passing reference, address the segregated lifestyle the Tuohys had let until they met Oher. It also doesn't ignore the disturbing, racist sexual assumptions implying that young, white women have to be afraid of young black men, whether the implication is one of rape or just "getting in trouble," by getting pregnant. Either way, there's a a feeling of predator and prey in that canard. Several of the Tuohys white friends bring up "the issue" and Leigh Anne has a candid talk with her teenage daughter Collins about it, in which Collins proves herself to be gracious, kind and loving toward her adopted brother, despite the malice of her classmates and her parents' peers.

So, leaving further race analyses to our better-informed peers, let's get down to the feminist nitty-gritty, starting with strong female characters.

Of the supporting roles, there are a few great ones. Cathy Bates is funny and smart as Miss Sue, the tutor who helps boost Oher's grades so he can qualify for NCAAA scholarships. Kim Dickens is great as Mrs. Boswell, a teacher who advocates for Oher among his school's impatient faculty. And Lily Collins, as Leigh Anne's daughter, is a well-placed role for a teenager who has a lot to lose socially, but casts off the shackles of her catty peers to be a good friend, sister and daughter.

On the negative side, the only black, female characters are both somewhat troublesome ones. Although Oher's mother is treated more sensitively than other films might have treated her, she's still a character the audience doesn't fully understand. She's a mother biologically, but she has failed Oher with her addiction and neglect since he was a young child. She apparently lives in the projects that Oher frequented, but hasn't noticed his absence and willingly relinquishes her legal rights to Tuohy. Meanwhile, she also neglects a number of other children and lives alone and in squalor.

The other black, female character is that of an interrogating, somewhat manipulative NCAA official who accuses Oher and the Tuohys of violating NCAA rules by favoring Ole Miss, the Tuohys' alma mater, in Oher's whirlwind football recruitment. She insinuates to Oher that the Tuohys only adopted him to benefit the Ole Miss franchise, and fears that his precedent will lead to more white families adopting large, black youths to do the same. It was interesting that the NCAA character--one that seemingly can pull the plug on Oher's scholarship--was cast as a black woman. Maybe the real official was a black woman--that would be telling to find out. Thus, in this scenerio, a white woman gave him everything he has, and a black woman is trying to take it away. In the end, Oher convinces the NCAA official that he favors Ole Miss because that's where his family went to school, and she doesn't stand in the way.

And obviously, we should end with the big-hitter. Despite the real-life Cinderella story of Oher, the starring role in this film is that of a woman, Leigh Anne. She's mouthy, beautiful, aggressive and maternal. Although she doesn't seem to work much, she is an interior designer, although she's married to a wealthy fast-food franchise owner. She is charitable and smart, and not terribly domestic--her house is so large, she probably employs a housekeeper to clean (though admittedly, that's probably an underpaid woman who isn't white), and her husband jokes to the kids to thank their mom for picking up Thanksgiving dinner to-go. She's knowledgeable about sports, she carries a gun in her purse, and she stands up to gang members, teachers, coaches and scariest of all--cranky government records employees. She sees a kid in need, and she helps him. She is a a white savior to a black kid, I'm not denying that theme and how much it is overplayed in white-guilt-assuaging films. But one thing is undeniable about this story--Leigh Anne Tuohy changed someone's life forever, and it's something that most of us don't have the balls to do.

Feminist grade: B

For all its racial issues, of which bloggers on Ladybrain don't pretend to be experts, this is a film anchored on the character of a strong woman. In feminist analysis, that can't be ignored, just like its race issues can't be ignored.

Moviegoer grade : B

It's lively, sometimes funny, often touching and inspirational. And most people say that like it's a bad thing.

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