Sarah Palin isn't the only gun-toting, conservative Christian sports mom back in the news. This week also gives us Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the no-nonsense, git-'r-done, steel magnolia Memphis mother whose rescue of inner-city gentle giant Michael Oher provides the real-life inspiration for "The Blind Side" -- and whose tight skirts give Michael's football peers a reason to peer over their face masks when mom stalks the sidelines.
"I'm in a prayer group with the D.A., I'm a member of the NRA, and I'm always packin'," Leigh Anne asserts in the film, when she faces down some leering and sneering hoodlums in Hurt Village, her adopted son's old public-housing stomping grounds. (Actually, the movie was shot in Atlanta.) Marvels Leigh Anne's husband, Memphis Grizzlies broadcast analyst Sean Tuohy (played in the film by Tim McGraw), after Oher's tutor (Kathy Bates) admits her voting preference: "Who'd have thought we'd have a black son before we'd know a Democrat?"
I'm glad that I can give a legitimate positive review to "The Blind Side," because I do not want to be ridden out of town on a rail. Mid-Southerners seem to feel a sense of pride and ownership in the unlikely inspirational saga of Oher, the impoverished, homeless youth whose adoptive family, the Tuohys, provided him with emotional and material security, an education (at Briarcrest Christian School and Ole Miss) and the foundation for his football stardom, first at Ole Miss and now in Baltimore, with the NFL's Ravens.
"The Blind Side" wraps this pride in a slick Hollywood package, but writer-director John Lee Hancock is smart enough to kick the package, so to speak, to test it for sturdiness -- his script acknowledges the issues that continue to generate endless, even angry arguments about the Tuohys' motives. (Read any Oher story on commercialappeal.com, and you'll find a lengthy debate between those who praise the Tuohys and those who accuse them of being interested in Oher only because he could win football games for Briarcrest and Ole Miss.)
If "The Blind Side" were fiction, it might be hooted from the screen, its story seems so implausible. Its factual basis -- made familiar to a national audience by Michael Lewis in his 2006 book, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" -- provides Hancock with a foundation strong enough to support not just a message of charity but Bullock's credible go-for-broke performance.
Here, Bullock makes up for her recent string of desperate romantic comedies with a role that recalls Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning work as a push-up-bra feminist in "Erin Brockovich." This is as much a female star vehicle as any film from the heyday of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
The movie is peppered with calculatedly memorable exchanges, which emphasize that this is more Leigh Anne's than Michael's story: "Honey, you're changing that boy's life," says one of Leigh Anne's friends; "No, he's changing mine," she replies. Sean is a side player, his biggest contribution occurs when he helps Michael write an English paper that compares "The Charge of the Light Brigade" to an Ole Miss-LSU football game.
The movie is not as contrived as it seems to be from its trailer. Hancock -- whose 2002 film, "The Rookie," offered a similar unbelievable-but-true sports story -- soft-pedals the sentiment for the most part; tough Leigh Anne doesn't want anyone to see her cry, so she flees the scene when the waterworks begin, which enables Hancock to create what might be called a tearless tearjerker. A typically tasteful score from Carter Burwell, who is probably best known for his work on such artful film as "Fargo" and "Kinsey," also helps the film escape the slough of schmaltz.
"The Blind Side" begins with a cross-city drive that functions as a metaphor for the story, as Michael (played with quiet hulking dignity by Quinton Aaron) travels from the bombed-out crack-pipe 'hood to the tidy blocks of suburban Memphis, where his uncle hopes to enroll him at Wingate Christian School (the movie's version of Briarcrest), where the words "With Man This Is Possible, With God All Things Are Possible" are inscribed over a gateway.
Coach Boswell (played by the always excellent Ray McKinnon, recently in town for the Indie Memphis Film Festival in connection with the superb film, "That Evening Sun") is eager to bend the rules so the teenage man-mountain can get a good education -- plus play sports. "Look at that wall -- 'Christian,'" the coach says, pointing to the name of the school. "We either take that seriously, or we paint over it."
Many newspaper and magazine stories have been written in the past few years about the emergence of "Christian" cinema as a genre unto itself. ("The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry," still in town after eight weeks, is a current example.) Although their makers always claim these features are aimed at all people of good will, whatever their faith, these movies rarely find an audience beyond their target demographic of churchgoers.
"The Blind Side" is the type of quality "mainstream" movie those filmmakers aspire to create. Its "Christian" message -- crucial to the actual Tuohy story -- isn't hidden, but it's also not part of the film's ad campaign. Audiences can take it or leave it, but it's undeniably there.
After Leigh Anne sees Michael walking along a dark road on a cold night, she brings him to the lavish Tuohy home, where we find a Colonel Rebel yard gnome on the lawn and a copy of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" on the coffee table. Also present: teenage daughter Collins Tuohy (Lily Collins) and young Sean Junior (Jae Head), whose scene-stealing antics provide much of the movie's comedy, at least until Michael's emergence as a high school football star lures such real-life college coaches as Nick Saban, Phillip Fulmer and Houston Nutt into the story. (Playing themselves, the coaches are amusing, if less than convincing.)
The film was produced in part by Alcon Entertainment, a company owned by FedEx founder Fred Smith. His daughter, Molly Smith, is an executive producer. Memphis actress Melody Weintraub -- the only local performer with a significant role in the film -- appears as a history teacher.
-- John Beifuss, 529-2394