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The Blind Side

From the trailer to The Blind Side, I knew two things. One, I'd seen the entire plot of the movie and two, I was going to bawl like a baby. It turns out that I was more than half-right about John Lee Hancock's film. What I never guessed was how impressed I would be with the whole thing.

Mostly that's because Hancock could have easily made this schmaltzy, and for the most part resists. Covering two years in the life of now-pro football player Michael Oher, The Blind Side takes its cues from his adoptive mother, Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock). She narrates - lightly - and really drives the movie.

When the story begins, Oher (Quinton Aaron) has been bounced around from foster home to foster home. Because of his quiet geniality, which borders on being just shut down, combined with incredible athletic ability, the father of one of his friends tries to get him into the exclusive Wingate Christian Academy. Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) goes to bat for the obvious reasons, but it is his impassioned and to us obviously loaded speech about Christian duty that gets Oher admitted.

And that's one of the few moments that Hancock plays heavy-handedly, yet so purposefully and with a wink to the audience. By slipping that message through as an almost insincere moment, he's built the foundation for his theme.

That really takes off once Leigh Anne realizes that "Big Mike," as everyone calls him, has no home and no support system. A mother of two kids at the school, Leigh Anne takes Big Mike in for Thanksgiving. Wisely, Hancock doesn't pretend that Leigh Anne is a saint. She frets over whether or not she'll wake up in the morning to find her valuables stolen. But she's driven by a sense that this kid needs help that no one else seems willing to give.

A few teachers mean well. After fishing one of Oher's poems out of the trash, the science teacher (Kim Dickens) realizes that even though he's tested terribly poorly, he's listening and learning; he just has trouble articulating it in writing. (My one complaint is that of all people, the English teacher is the jerk that won't come on board and accept that Oher isn't a complete waste of his time.)

But it takes Leigh Anne's drive to make changes in Big Mike's life, the first of which comes by treating him with dignity when he finally has the courage to admit he hates being called Big Mike. It's all played subtly by Bullock, and that comes as another big surprise. For what is obviously a bid for Oscar talk, it's a welcome subtle performance. She has no big breakdown moments, just a consistent portrayal of quiet strength and decency, even if her Memphis accent isn't quite as consistent.

The beats of the story come pretty much as you might expect, but never work so hard at tugging the heart-strings that you feel manipulated. The truth is it plays truthfully, right down to the good-natured suffering of Leigh Anne's husband Sean (Tim McGraw). It may seem like a bit of fantasy, but in addition to showing the story of a good kid getting out of bad circumstances, The Blind Side also portrays a strong marriage based on things like love and respect.

Maybe that's easy when you're as successful as the Tuohys obviously are, but Hancock keeps dropping little reminders that Oher's presence in their home reminds them how easily it could all disappear. It's not a cliché or an accident that waking up on Thanksgiving morning, Michael sees a coffee table book on Norman Rockwell's paintings "The Four Freedoms" with the cover being "Freedom From Want."

It's a scene that's alien to him, with a drug-addicted mother, half-brothers spread all over the city, and friends that aren't going to make it out alive. Yet it takes his presence to remind the Tuohys - and maybe more of us than we'd care to admit - that they already have that and take it for granted.

Despite a PG-13 rating - likely because it doesn't shy away from depicting the life Oher escaped -- The Blind Side is a family movie about people doing the right thing. It's the kind of movie that many conservatives claim Hollywood doesn't make. Everyone else might consider it fantasy.

Maybe. Except it's truer than most - check out the short feature on Oher below, made while he was still in college:

The Blind Side isn't brilliant film-making, but it's heartfelt and decent. And yes, you may shed a few tears, but at least you'll come by them honestly.

Derek McCaw

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