Watching “The Blind Side” is like watching your favorite football team; you’ll cheer when things go well, curse when they don’t, and be reminded that in football, as in life, it’s how you play the game that counts -- though winning doesn’t hurt, either.
I’m talking to the jocks here. The rest of you can just bring Kleenex and give in to this quintessentially old-style story that is high on hope, low on cynicism and long on heart. If Frank Capra was still around, director John Lee Hancock might have had to fight him for the job.
Based on the remarkable true story of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher -- once a homeless black Memphis teenager literally plucked off the road on an icy winter night by a well-heeled white family -- the movie stars Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy. She’s a spitfire of a mom, and it’s the kind of smart, sassy role Hollywood should have given the actress ages ago.
Michael’s story begins in a Memphis project aptly named Hurt Village with a drug-addicted mother, an absentee father and a childhood in and out of foster homes, all of which we get compressed into a few quick flashbacks scattered through the film.
It’s what became of Michael (newcomer Quinton Aaron) that the film is concerned with, and that is framed by something else entirely: the Tuohy family and Washington Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theismann’s career-ending injury in 1985 after a blindside tackle by New York Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
The film opens, as does the Michael Lewis book on which it is based, with a breakdown of the four seconds from the snap of the ball to the snap of Theismann’s leg that would change the game, with Bullock narrating the still difficult to see footage from that night. (Theismann has said even he can’t watch it.)
Michael, it turns out, will have the weight, size and speed to block the Lawrence Taylors of the world, an increasingly valuable commodity in the football world. And that’s where the Tuohys come in -- as a football-obsessed family, they nurture his raw talent; as fundamental Christians, they keep an eye on his soul.
Leigh Anne is a force of nature in a Chanel suit, armed with a cellphone and a .22. In the role, Bullock blows in like a tornado, issuing orders in a rapid-fire Southern drawl that defies speed and ruffles more than a few feathers. It’s not her fault, she just knows she’s right and won’t stop until everyone else is on the same page.
And believe me, Bullock makes “join rather than fight” the option you want to take. She nails the character with every click, click, click of her heels and every toss of those perfectly coiffed blond locks. When she stares down a drug dealer while she assures him her Saturday Night Special works just fine on all the other days of the week, you feel like ducking too.
The rest of the clan is made up of husband Sean, played with an easygoing charm by country singer Tim McGraw, teenage daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and young son SJ, with Jae Head pulling off such a perfect mix of Leigh Anne’s cockiness and Sean’s charisma that you miss him when he’s not around.
Michael ends up enrolled in the private Christian school where the Tuohy kids go. His size and agility had caught the coach’s eye and he’s accepted despite having a grade-point average that barely registers. That fateful freezing night when Leigh Anne takes him home comes soon after, and almost overnight he is being absorbed into the family, which has not only an open heart and an open mind, but a serious obsession with football, Ole Miss in particular.
What happens next is a testament to the unique people that both Leigh Anne and Michael are. As she begins to piece together the depressing back story of his life, he begins to trust that she will be there for him. These are emotional colors not easy to get to, but they happen here in moving ways because of the chemistry between Bullock and Aaron. She infuses the role with empathy, not pity; he brings an aching vulnerability and an innocence that are remarkable for someone with no formal training.
You know going in that this is a success story, but it still is deeply satisfying to see Michael’s life unfold. He becomes a decent student in large part thanks to the help of his tutor Miss Sue ( Kathy Bates), another Ole Miss alum. He’s a bull on the field and eventually the object of a college ball recruitment drive so extensive that the NCAA investigates. No one can quite believe the Tuohys would take him in with no ulterior motive, particularly after he chooses to go to Ole Miss.
After the fiasco of “The Alamo,” Hancock is solidly back in his wheelhouse with another compelling sports story that echoes the human touch he brought to the 2002 sleeper hit “The Rookie.” In “The Blind Side,” he’s pared much of the football analysis of the book away to keep the focus on the family. But one of the great treats of the film is the parade of real-life coaches, including such legends as Lou Holtz and Nick Saban, that come to recruit Michael. And there should be enough on-field action to get even the tough guys in the audience through the more emotional moments.
Wisely, Hancock has given the film as much humor as heart, whether it’s Michael bench-pressing SJ or Leigh Anne calling in plays to a very irritated high school coach. By the time Sean points out the irony that they ended up having a black son before they had even met a Democrat (Miss Sue), you’ve long since accepted that there is nothing predictable about this story.
But in the end, this is Bullock’s movie. She is Leigh Anne to such a degree you forget you’re watching one of the best-known actresses around. And while her sass is both endearing and highly entertaining, it is the way she masks Leigh Anne’s “never let them see you cry” vulnerability, especially when it comes to Michael -- the quick retreats when she’s moved, shoulder thrown back, eyes staring straight ahead as she hands out the latest set of marching orders -- that leave you cheering for her too.