By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Getting blindsided on a football field is painful and happens all the time. Getting blindsided by a movie isn't as common, but when it happens it's a treat.
Based on a story too good to be true but is, John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side caught me completely off guard. The movie didn't knock me out of my cleats but it did make my eyes water.
It's a sports movie, so locker room cliches are expected. It's a feel-good flick, so emotional manipulation is a given. The Blind Side also involves the recurring, irritating movie premise that African-Americans only succeed with white saviors assisting. Hancock can't avoid that problem because no self-respecting filmmaker can rewrite a true story that much.
Yet despite qualities usually getting on my nerves — and Sandra Bullock hasn't been mentioned — The Blind Side becomes the most uplifting sports movie since The Rookie, which, not so coincidentally, Hancock also directed. The guy knows how to game-plan a jock flick.
The Blind Side doesn't hinge on a last-second shot at victory, but it may be the only shot for Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) to escape the defeat of living in a Memphis housing project. Oher is a giant too gentle for those mean streets, deserted by his parents, left with dealers and pimps for role models, and defensively shy.
Noticed by a football coach (Ray McKinnon) for his bulk, Oher gains admission to a private school for which he isn't academically or socially prepared. On the brink of expulsion, Oher crosses paths with an affluent white family led — make that prodded — by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), a steel magnolia compelled to charity work. However, this project becomes deeply personal.
The Tuohys take Oher into their home, shore up his grades and teach him to apply his protective instincts on the football field as an offensive lineman. Colleges begin calling with scholarship offers requiring even better grades, so they hire a tutor (Kathy Bates, in feisty mode). Eventually, Oher is an Ole Miss graduate, a first round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens and an NFL star.
If a screenwriter concocted this tale, he'd be tossed out of every studio in Hollywood. Since Oher's story is true, only jaded or cynical viewers can gripe about The Blind Side — even that the movie's MVP isn't Aaron as Oher but Bullock's rich portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Armed with a convincing Southern accent and genteel strength, Bullock delivers her most full-blooded performance in years; motherly tough and amusingly down to earth. Think Terms of Endearment's Aurora Greenway in younger years. Leigh Anne is the bedrock of her family and Hancock's movie. False notes in either could be devastating, to Oher and The Blind Side. They may be there, but we're too involved to notice.
Aaron is restricted only by Oher's true personality at that stage of his life. It's a tall order for anyone, especially with so little experience, to play withdrawn without losing touch with an audience. Aaron overdoes the sheepish expressions a bit but knows when to interrupt them with self-aware pauses or slight smiles signaling personal growth.
Although this is Michael and Leigh Anne's movie, solid supporting work comes from Tim McGraw as Sean Tuohy, the husband puzzled by his wife's latest project but quickly convinced, and Jae Head and Lily Collins as their children, uncommonly understanding of a new family member. Adriane Lenox has only one terrific scene as Oher's drug-addicted mother, making clear what obstacles her son is overcoming.
So, scoff if you must at a true story steeped in this much goodness. Grumble about conditions making Michael Oher an exception to socioeconomic rules, and only because white people helped him. Then check out The Blind Side and — as my coach used to say — keep your head on a swivel, so it doesn't sneak up with a tender shot to your heart.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.