Ah, the American Dream. Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman about it, Mad Men satirizes it, and millions of cookie-cutter American suburban bungalows (with SUVs to match) confirm it. The latest installment is The Blind Side, which paints a candy-coated picture of it that leaves a sadly saccharine aftertaste, and a predictably one-dimensional picture of American life.
The Blind Side follows the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a lumbering black teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who achieves, out of charity and a semblance of athletic promise, enrollment at a prestigious private Christian school in Memphis, Tennessee. Michael is failing his way through his first year when he meets a feisty blonde fireball of a Southern mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), who takes him into her sprawling home and gives him clothes, an education, and most importantly, a feeling of self-worth. Along the way, Michael wins the love and appreciation of the rest of his adoptive family: a precocious brother, aloof sister, and good-natured father. He is also helped by his well-meaning football coach (Ray McKinnon) and sage private tutor (Kathy Bates). Together they encourage him to reach his potential and ultimate goal of winning a Division I football college scholarship. All of this is achieved in spite of Michael’s drug-addled mother (Adriane Lenox) and gun-riddled upbringing that threaten to drag him back down to the southern slums of Memphis.
Let me just say that the experience of watching this film was strange. I’m half-American, and have lived the majority of my life within US borders, yet somehow seeing The Blind Side on the other side of the pond made a flimsy portrayal of American culture seem all the more stereotypical. To put it bluntly, the white Christian crusaders swooping in to save a black youth from his downtrodden culture and himself, in the name of God and football, is nothing new in American cinema and culture, and makes the premise of the film feel more like a Hallmark made-for-TV movie than an Oscar-worthy production.
The worst part of all of this is that this story is true: Michael Oher did in fact go on to play professional football with the help of the Tuohy family, which makes me feel a little bit guilty as I write this review. It’s an incredible accomplishment for Michael to have received that kind of recognition and achievement, and the Tuohy’s certainly practiced what their Christian morals preached. However, I couldn’t help feeling that in an attempt to make a feel-good movie feel good, The Blind Side forwent character and plot development for a simple message of charity and hope. This isn’t always a bad thing, and the film is certainly entertaining, compelling, and even inspiring, but the issues of race and religion that are touched upon are left glaringly un-dealt with, robbing the film of the substance it needs to make it truly successful. The Oscar nomination of Sandra Bullock speaks for itself—her performance as the immaculately groomed, morally conscious Mrs. Tuohy is stand-out, and by far the most developed, showing doubt beneath the bleach-blond hair and perfectly arched eyebrows. However, one of the most underrated performances is that of Michael’s mother, whose appearance gives the movie a brief sense of authentic humanity and understanding.
For what it’s worth, every American I’ve spoken to has loved this film. It has the crucial elements: achievement, athletics, and the good ol’ US of A. But it is the over-saturation of ‘heart’ that makes the Academy’s nomination for best picture so questionable, and leaves this incredible story feeling more insipid than inspiring.