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“Blind Side” an uncommonly understated human drama

Sandra Bullock is all sass, little sentiment as Michael Oher's (Quinton Aaron) guardian in "The Blind Side."

Let’s be plain about “The Blind Side”: Lee Daniels’ “Precious” it ain’t. Save for two damaged protagonists, these films have little in common. In “The Blind Side,” John Lee Hancock dulls the sharp edges of a childhood lived in poverty and neglect; Daniels displays the emotional and physical hurts in full view. Really, it’s the difference between neatly bandaged wounds and open ones. 

But perhaps this comparison, though inevitable, isn’t exactly fair, because it implies that “The Blind Side” is some kind of emotionally manipulative mushfest that is top-heavy with cliches. Gird your loins for a startling realization: There’s little schmaltz here. Indeed, what delights about “The Blind Side” is the low-key tone and the balance Hancock strikes between character-based drama, sports and comedy. What’s more, the director sees his characters as actual people and allows them to behave as such; their actions feel natural, not forced along by inane plot conventions. They become real to us, something that rarely happens in films with such clear feel-good intentions as this one.

Much credit must be given upfront to Sandra Bullock for her bold, unidealistic performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy Tennessee interior designer whose designer-label threads belie her kind heart and good intentions. This is strong, nuanced work from an actress who (finally! after years of crap like “Miss Congeniality”!) has begun to trust her talent. She grounds “The Blind Side” firmly in matter-of-fact reality as her story intersects with that of future Baltimore Ravens right tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a poor teen accepted to the private Christian academy her children attend. Accepted because the football coach (Ray McKinnon) sees a bright athletic future for him, Michael has a low GPA and a tendency to retreat into his own head that some teachers mistake as stupidity. But Leigh Anne’s son S.J. (Jae Head) befriends Michael, and so she invites the teen into her home. They hire a tutor (the always-wonderful Kathy Bates) to work with Michael while S.J. teaches him football. Slowly, and much to the dismay of Leigh Anne’s snobbish friends, Michael becomes a real part of the Tuohy family.

The story, loosely based on Michael Lewis’ 2006 book about the real Oher, is simple enough to suggest some parts have been smoothed over. That’s probably the case, but it’s important to note what Hancock gets right: the likable characters and the lack of Hollywood mushiness. Tim McGraw, though hardly Sean Penn, doesn’t overact as Leigh Anne’s supportive husband Sean (he does have a few unnecessarily corny zingers, though). Head doesn’t exactly transcend the Precocious Kid stereotype, but he provides solid comic relief. Bates’ sly humor is a welcome addition as well (Kathy Bates don’t do cutesy, remember?). Aaron, chosen more for his size than acting chops, is a little more hesitant than he should be, but that doesn’t derail the movie.

Actually, that hesitation aligns him nicely with Bullock’s hard-nosed Leigh Anne, herself a bit reticent and not prone to spontaneous displays of emotion. These two have more in common than we’d think (this wins the film more points for originality). Sean describes Leigh Anne as an onion — “you have to peel her back layer by layer” — and that extends to Michael. Perhaps that is what draws Leigh Anne to Michael, the fear of seeming vulnerable. They are, in a strange way, kindred spirits. Bullock, who’s always had a quietly guarded air about her, captures Leigh Anne’s reluctance perfectly. This performance might earn her some nominations, and she will deserve them.

Hancock also sidesteps a number of cliches that lesser directors would devour: the Big Game; the Touching Moments Montage; the Coach’s Big Motivational Speech. “The Blind Side” contains not one of these insufferable moments, and the few checklist items that do crop up — there is a misunderstanding and a scene with Michael’s drug-addicted biological mother — are handled with grace. When given the choice, Hancock errs on the side of poise. And while that doesn’t mean “The Blind Side” is perfect, it does mean that it’s a refreshingly unsentimental inspirational film.

Grade: B-