As a writer, my weakest point is story structure. I can come up with a pretty good premise and strong characters, but I have trouble crafting a story in a way that continues to move forward and leads to an exciting conclusion.
In an effort to improve my story structure writing skills, I decided to analyze a film and write it down – scene by scene – to see how it builds tension. I sat down to watch THE BLIND SIDE with a stopwatch and a notebook in an effort to study the film’s structure and pacing. All I really knew about the film was that it was based on a true story and that it was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and for Best Picture.I wrote down each and every scene to try to follow the movie’s progression to determine what makes the tension build and what makes you want to keep watching.
Instead, what I found was a film that was fairly devoid of tension and was more a lesson in missed opportunities in developing suspense and conflict.
The trick with this story is to separate fact from fiction, but not in the most obvious sense. There will always be fabricated events even in films that are “based on a true story”. This is understandable and necessary. Even in the most amazing real life tales, reality can be boring sometimes. The true story premise of THE BLIND SIDE: rich family takes in poor boy, poor boy goes on to be a famous NFL star is truly inspiring. The facts of the story are uplifting. For me, the film itself was not. Whenever I felt truly moved by this story, it was because my mind and heart was remembering that at least some of this really happened. If this film was not a true story, I doubt people would have liked it nearly as much.
Leigh Anne Tuohy did a really gutsy thing. She defied society by taking in a homeless black teenager and raised him as her own son. There’s just no way that was as easy as this film makes it look for either Leigh Anne or for Michael.
As I watched the film and studied my notes afterward, I found the following opportunities that were glossed over instead of mined for greater conflict and tension: (WARNING: Spoilers)
1. Fear that having a stranger – especially a poor, black stranger- in the house could be dangerous. Politically correct or not, it would have been more realistic if they had at least explored this a little more instead of just mentioning it in passing.
2. Alienation by society as a result of a rich, white family taking in a poor, black teenager. This was shown briefly with Leigh Anne’s friends, but little was said about the rich, white schoolmates of Leigh Anne’s son and daughter. It was mentioned briefly, but showing this conflict would have been much more effective.
3. The idea that Leigh Anne might be grooming Mike to play for her old alma mater was not set up well at all. Had we had an inkling throughout that this could be her ulterior motive, it would have added suspense and tension. Is it true? What happens if Mike finds out? To me, it was introduced too late and it felt tacked on.
4. Leigh Anne says Mike changed her life, but we don’t really see how. Maybe if we had seen a little more of her shallow existence beforehand, we could have deeper insight into how Mike changed her life.
5. Through flashbacks, we see clearly that something bad has happened in Mike’s past, but we don’t really know what. Knowing what terrible things happened to him would have more clearly defined his character. This is a particularly damaging omission as Michael is flunking out of school and is nearly mute. If we had a better idea of just how badly he had been abused and neglected, we could understand why he was in such bad shape. As it stands now, the film seems to indicate white = rich and smart and black = poor and ignorant. There are no positive black characters anywhere to be found. They couldn’t even toss in an intelligent black teacher at the school?
6. Leigh Anne comes across as nearly perfect. She’s beautiful, smart, sassy, brave, charitable, etc. There’s little conflict in her character. The scene where she told off the scary folks in the bad neighborhood could have been rife with tension: Will she get hurt? Will they retaliate later? Is she being too haughty – not having any idea what it’s like to live in a neighborhood like that? None of these questions are raised. She just comes across as all-powerful – she can take on a neighborhood where we all would fear to tread. She also takes on the drunk rednecks at the football game. There is no fear of danger or suspense at all. In addition, she seems to know everything about football. She seems to know everything about everything. We could identify with her / empathize with her more if she were more vulnerable sometimes.
7. Leigh Anne’s son is nearly killed in an accident when Michael is driving. Instead of reflecting again on the possible danger of the situation, Leigh Anne seems okay with this as well…. I will admit that it was touching when she said “my kids are in that car!” referring to both Michael and S.J. The accident could also have been used as a time of fear and tension on Mike’s part. He could ponder the impact that his presence has on this family, not just the other way around. Nope! By the next scene, it’s all good.
By far the greatest strength of the film is Sandra Bullock’s performance. I believe she deserved the recognition she got for the role, but I’m not too thrilled about the movie’s Best Picture nomination. Had this been an original screenplay and not based on a true story, I wonder if the film would even have gotten made. People would say it’s just not believable enough…