Two films vying for Oscars this year feature African-American teenagers - a boy in one case, a girl in the other - rescued from lives of ignorance and abuse by the altruistic middle classes. The Blind Side is the glossy, Hollywood mainstream version of the story, emphasising the generosity of the paternalistic white folks and the boy's natural talent for sport, while Precious is a raw, bruising independent film, which lays more stress on the girl's brutal upbringing and the social safety net that helps Precious to help herself.
Not surprisingly, given the highly politicised arena of race representation in the US, both films have been praised and criticised. Both have performed well above expectations at the US box office, but The Blind Side has been seen by six times as many people. Again, that's not surprising. While both movies have upbeat endings, The Blind Side is pure "feel-good" from first to last. What is surprising is that it happens to be true.
Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a gentle giant from the wrong side of the tracks: Hurt Village, Memphis, Tennessee. Accepted into a private Christian school at the urging of the football coach, who sizes up his talent in one glance, Michael cannot help but stand out. He is virtually the only black child in school. He's also bottom of the class. Things turn around for him when the Tuohys realise that he lives on the street. One of those women who get things done by sheer force of personality, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) invites him to their home for Thanksgiving dinner, then insists that he stay the night. Soon he has his own room and the Tuohys are talking about adoption.
The writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) is in no hurry to get to the sporting action; he appreciates the drama here is in the unconventional mother-son bond that develops between the taciturn teenager, who shields himself from the pain in his life by shutting off from others, and the loquacious benefactress who admits she's never even ventured into the black part of town before, but will stare down a drug dealer to protect her new charge.
Hancock ever so gently probes the family's motives - are they more interested in furnishing a star football player for the college team than in listening to Michael's wishes? - but in the end everyone gets a free pass: they're just good people. More from Michael's perspective might have generated welcome dramatic tension - beyond the struggle to get his grades up and to show some aggression on the football field - but then this is Bullock's movie all the way. A manicured blonde with a tart tongue and the kind of determination you wouldn't want to resist, Leigh Anne is a bone fide steel magnolia, and probably the best role Bullock has found in the past decade.