The Blind Side

When you see as many movies as I do, you learn to avoid entire categories, either because you don’t like them or because you’re just flat out tired of ‘em. For example, I skipped last year’s “The Class” and “The History Boys”, just because I’m tired of the whole Blackboard Jungle thing.

Even when I like a movie, if I’m acutely aware of the formula, it can be hard to really get into it. (I liked “The Last Samurai” but I couldn’t keep from thinking “Oh, look, a white guy’s gonna show the Japanese how to be better Japanese.”)

Rarely, however, you end up missing something that approaches a well-worn storyline in a refreshing way, as I almost did with the new Great Expectations-ish The Blind Side.

In this movie, Michael Oher, a ginormous black orphan who has lucked into a place in a fancy Christian private school, ends up being adopted by Leigh Ann Tuohy (a MILFed-up Sandra Bullock). Over the next two hours, they change each others’ lives.

You can understand my dread. “Based on a true story!” even.

In what constitutes a Thanksgiving miracle—yeah, it’s been out for a while—this actually works. Why?

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Well, first of all, the characters are well-defined and interesting, the story is lively with lots of barriers impeding the characters’ desires, the dialogue is funny and touching, and the resolution is satisfying. It all sounds so easy when you put it that way. But really, there are a ton of pitfalls t this kind of movie, and the movie avoids almost all of them neatly.

For example, there’s a tendency (to put it mildly) in a movie like this to wallow in racism. There is racism in this film, but it goes both ways and mostly comes across as one of many forms of xenophobia. There’s no temptation to make it the central point of the film.

This can lead to the related pitfall of viewing the world as a unrelentingly cruel place where selfishness is the sole motivator, and the righteous protagonists are the only beacon of hope, sacrificing all in the process. Now, the Tuohys are definitely good folk, but there’s no real hardship for them. It’s not about them “sacrificing”; the movie shows a convincing case that (as said in the movie’s most wince-worthy moment) Michael is changing their lives.

Their “sacrifices” are shown in contrast to what their charge has endured, but rather through their understanding of those things, instead of through graphic flashbacks. Really, the only serious discussion about whether they should be doing what they’re doing revolves around their kids. And even then, it’s not like there’s a question that they should help.

It’s kind of refreshing. And it feels true, too, in the characters’ reactions to what is, essentially, Leigh Ann’s rather powerful sense of responsibility.

The tertiary characters are a rich assortment. There’s a lot of naked self-interest. There’s some altruism. There’s a veneer of altruism masking healthy doses of self-interest. At the same time, the movie doesn’t try to portray self-interest as evil. It comes across as natural: There is an “I”; there is also an “us” (as in our team or family). In other words, it seems very realistic.

This movie avoids The biggest pitfall of all—mawkishness. This is charmingly reflected in Leigh Ann’s tendency to leave the room rather than have anyone see her get emotional. But the whole film does that: It shows us the projects, the poverty, the bureaucracy, the politics, the opulence, the desperation, the kindness, the bravery—all without the high melodrama or glib politics these sorts of movies are prey to. It allows you to feel what you’ll feel from the circumstances, not from having characters overact.

I can’t say I viewed it entirely apolitically. The Tuohys are Republican. So Republican, apparently, they don’t know any Democrats. But this is more of a cute point, only significant because I can’t recall any film ever where the main characters are both kind, generous and explicitly Republican. The real (political) thought that occurred to me, as I was watching this poor kid wander around The Projects was, “Gosh, everyone wants to go to public school and live in public housing! Why wouldn’t they be crazy about public health care?”

So, yeah, I brought my own snark. The movie doesn’t address the issue at all. (Which is fitting, I think.)

Anyway, the Boy (my 14-year-old movie companion) enjoyed it quite a bit. I attribute that to the lack of gross sentimentality and the general liveliness of the whole movie.

Anyway, if you’re like me and you’ve been waffling on seeing it, give it a shot: There’s a reason it’s still playing. And stay for the closing credits to see pictures of the real Tuohys with Michael Oher.

(Previously posted at Ace of Spades HQ.)

Everybody’s Fine

Ah, that great holiday tradition, the dysfunctional family film. I don’t know when it started, but the modern form seems to stem from Ordinary People, that Oscar-winning depress-fest that made us miss Mary Tyler Moore’s spunk.

This season’s dysfunction starts off with Kirk Jones’ (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned) Everybody’s Fine and Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. And, as might be expected from a director with such a gentle pedigree, this isn’t your hard-core “you ruined my life and now I’m a drug-addicted suicidal crack whore!” type family dysfunctional movie.

Actually, the dysfunction’s pretty mild. De Niro’s character is a decent guy, a blue collar wire-insulation man who worked hard to make sure his kids have plenty of opportunities. And his kids, for the most part, aren’t screwed up—they’re just worried about disappointing him.

On top of that, the one kid who is really screwed up, well, that’s not laid at his father’s feet.

Kind of refreshing, really. It’s less about soul-crushing guilt and despair, and more about communicating to improve relationships. (Sort of an anti-About Schmidt, if you will.)

De Niro is pleasing as the recently widowed father whose kids all cancel a long-planned weekend home, and so decides to embark on a medically ill-advised cross-country journey to see them instead. (The opening scene where he prepares for their arrival is rather touching, with nice touches, such as when he pulls out, inflates and fills the old wading pool.)

The movie flirts with a lot of clichés, reminding me quite a bit of Waking Ned Devine, as it toys a bit with your expectations, but eschews melodrama for something a little less over-the-top and an ultimately less predictable and more satisfying ending.

I rather enjoyed it. We were actually standing there debating whether or not to go see this or The Road, but I’ve made my opinion on the book rather clear, and the movie is apparently quite faithful to it. So, even without having seen it, I’m pretty sure I picked the more pleasant of experiences available.

It didn’t knock The Boy’s socks off, of course, but it reminded me, many years ago of having seen Peggy Sue Got Married with my dad. For him, a very emotional movie. (His grandparents were long dead, and so he was deeply touched by Kathleen Turner’s trip to the past to see them.) For me, not so much.

One device used here is to show the kids as kids, through De Niro’s eyes, and that got to me in a way I wouldn’t expect to get to him. Overall, though, I was pleased by the relatively low-level of dysfunction; I think it’s a little more realistic than the high dramatics we usually get.

I’m sure the actors love the scene chewing stuff, but there was a lot of nice, low-key drama here. Each of the children lies to their father, trying to protect him from bad news (and also trying to avoid confrontation), but they’re not all comfortable with it—or good at it.

So, while the cool, professional Beckinsale puts De Niro off rather mechanically, expressing regrets but not exhibiting a lot of warmth in her attempt to keep news away from him, the bubbly Barrymore is much more facile in her lying, and still very affectionate to him. The more morose Rockwell is an abysmal liar and knows it.

I’m not particularly a De Niro fan (more a matter of the sorts of movies he’s in) but he was excellent here as a guy who’s trying his best to understand his kids, while his kids are busy hiding from him.

As the man says, you could do worse, and probably will.

An Education

“She was a young maiden in the full bloom of youth,” or so could have started An Education, the movie based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. The story concerns 16-year-old Jenny, whose middle-class father controls her life tightly, forcing her to concentrate on education and building the appropriate resume to get into Oxford.

But Jenny finds herself the object of David’s attention. David is a roguish 30-something of the sort of mysterious (but copious) means that seem to signal “gentleman” to the English. He’s cultured, smooth and charming, and proceeds to seduce the family with his wiles.

What? Well, obviously he has to seduce the mother and father or they’re not going to be letting their 16-year-old daughter go out with him. I mean, it’s 1961 England, after all.

You know, as uptight as things were in England in 1961, I have a hard time imagining a stolid middle-class family today being cool with—well, let’s be honest, the guy isn’t even a young 30, the actor is 37!—sending their 16-year-old daughter out with an unknown man old enough to be her father.

And then sending her away for the weekend, even if it is to Oxford, and even if he has convinced them he’s connected.

Forget about Paris.

But, like I said, this is a memoir, and if I’m going to believe that Cameron Crowe lost his virginity in foursome with three groupies while on the road with a rock band (Almost Live), I suppose I can believe this.

Actually, it’s a testament to the movie’s execution that this comes off far less creepy than it should. Indeed, the movie only works at all because the audience is also seduced by David. He keeps a respectful distance from Jenny, and she’s ultimately in control of how their physical relationship progresses.

And as the cracks in David’s veneer begin to show, the movie does a good job of rationalizing. In particular, the defenders of the traditional path—work hard, do lots of boring, irrelevant stuff so that you can go to a good school, so that you can then become a teacher and teach boring, irrelevant stuff—are particularly weak at defending it.

Her teacher, her principal, her father really can’t explain why she should dedicate herself to study rather than run around with the roguish David and hang out in nightclubs, eat fine food, and explore Europe.

Beside the excellent handling by director Lone Scherfig, and nuanced performances by Peter Saarsgard (as David), and Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (as mom and dad), the movie is largely powered by the charming Carey Mulligan. (She’s 23, but like Ellen Page, she can play much younger convincingly.)

The actresses in this movie are especially strong, as they all seem to reflect the various choices available to the young Jenny. Mom is tired with an unextraordinary life, and we see both hints of danger and jealousy in Cara Seymour’s performance. Rosamund Pike (of Doom and Pride and Prejudice) plays Helen, who is the paramour of David’s partner in crime Danny, and in her we see—besides a shocking level of ignorance—wistfulness toward Jenny’s naiveté, jealousy of her sparkling youth, and the kinship of one who knows the man she loves is not as noble a character as she might like.

Olivia Williams (late of “Dollhouse”) plays Miss Stubbs, the teacher Jenny most highly respects (and ultimately gravely insults) as a buttoned-up disciplinarian, and Emma Thompson is the imperious and vengeful headmistress who sternly reminds Jenny that non-virgins are not allowed in her school. Heh.

Oh, and there’s also Matthew Beard, who plays Jenny’s age-appropriate suitor, Graham. He’s awkward and unsophisticated and also sweet and sincere, but wholly unable to compete against the urbane David. In his few short scenes, he has to deal with going from a likely successful suitor to being snubbed mysteriously to realizing what he’s up against.

Solid acting, solid writing, solid direction. Ultimately, though, I did find the whole exercise oddly Victorian and almost melodramatic. Will Jenny lose her virtue to the handsome rogue? Will her life be ruined? Will anyone care in five years, when the world so radically changes?

The Boy thought it could’ve been worse, but as remote as the whole thing felt to me—I could, at least, relate to the larger parental issues of making sure your kids know why they have to do things that aren’t fun—it’s ancient history to him.

Just as an addendum, Roger Ebert has put this on his top 10 list of mainstream movies of the year. I probably wouldn’t put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list. Heh. (But Ebert’s a contemporary so that might be part of the appeal for him.)