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By Elias Savada | November 26, 2009

Sandra Bullock runs hot and cold in my book. Yours too, I’ll bet. One step forward, one stumble (occasionally more) back. Her sometimes mind boggling career decisions may have landed her in some box office winners, such as the “Miss Congeniality” films and this year’s smash romantic comedy, “The Proposal.” Then, she spirals out of control in some disastrous stinkers, most notably “The Lake House” and her last irrationality “All About Steve,” in which she plays a disturbing 40-ish crossword puzzle constructor stalking a younger man. Don’t forget “Speed 2,” one of the dumbest films I’m still trying to forget. Her best action film was over a dozen years ago with the immensely enjoyable original “Speed,” and she was part of the marvelous ensemble that earned 2004’s “Crash” an Academy Award for best picture. I wouldn’t consider her Oscar-worthy material based on the breadth of her films, although I wonder if The American Film Institute would eventually consider a life achievement award for her.

That may change, as this may be Bullock’s best performance. Ever. Finally acting her age, Bullock gives a totally sensible and often sensitive performance in the life-affirming fact-based story of professional footballer, Michael Oher.

As a virtually homeless teenager on the wrong side of Memphis, Michael (Quinton Aaron) has suffered through domestic abuse and peer exploitation, despite his large size. He is soft-spoken, introverted, and a scholastic underachiever, yet with the help of “Big Tony” Hamilton, a friend of parochial high school football coach Cotton, Michael gets enrolled in the very exclusive Wingate Christian School. He doesn’t seem to acclimate well to his new surroundings, his eyes always pointed down to avoid contact with his fellow students and the mostly concerned teachers. And he barely survives, sponging off other customer’s wash loads at a local Laundromat and feeding off half-full popcorn bags he collects after school volleyball games. It doesn’t look pretty.

Meanwhile, the well-to-do Tuohy family, of Irish stock and all near-fanatical sports enthusiasts, live in a gracious residence on the better side of the tracks. The mom, Leigh Anne (a former cheerleader, played by Bullock), is a community sparkplug married to Sean (Tim McGraw), a former basketball player at Ole Miss. Their son Sean, Jr. (known as S.J., played by Jae Head), who has befriended “Big Mike” at school in an amusingly strong alliance, and his sister, Collins (Lily Collins), are as cute and courteous as any well-respected family can expect.

Thrust into the family’s well-organized rhythm is the wet and cold Michael (his first request to his new “mom” will be that she not call him the derogatory “Big Mike”), pulled off a rain-soaked road by the compassionate Leigh Anne. All the characters develop within this new family structure, as Michael begins to grow emotionally (he’s plenty big physically). If anything, there’s nary a regular “bad” character, except in a h.s. football sequence (a father out of “Deliverance” in the stands, his son taunting Michael on the field) and, late in the film, a concerned and borderline belligerent NCAA official questioning Michael about an important choice he and his family has made. Yes, Michael has some demons he needs to deal with in his old neighborhood, but he comes out of that experience a stronger person. Leigh Anne has to put up with pointed barbs tossed at her by her country club lady friends, and the kids deal with some fellow student’s disturbing verbal bullying, but the strength of the family perseveres, so make sure you have a hanky handy.

The extremely strong yet relaxed cast helps to make “The Blind Side” such a heartwarming experience without becoming too maudlin. Viewers should recall Head from his first feature appearance as the son of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron in “Hancock,” while Collins’ refreshing performance is her feature debut after a few tv appearances. Quinton Aaron gets the same kind of career-changing break that brought attention to Michael Clarke Duncan as the kindly, soft spoken, oversized character of John Coffey in 1999’s “The Green Mile.” Aaron’s contribution has been favorably compared to that offered by Gabourney Sidibe, the large-sized lead in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” Whether it’s the comic banter between S.J. and his big “brother,” or the slowly maturing mother-son relationship that grows between Michael and Leigh Anne, it’s to the credit of the film’s writer-director John Lee Hancock, who also scored with the professional baseball comeback film “The Rookie” back in 2002, who has so graciously adapted the book by Michael Lewis. The dialogue is smart and snappy, and there’s lots of likeable scenes, including a thanksgiving feast where everyone thanks Leigh Anne for driving to the store and getting the food. There’s also the funny Christmas family photo posing scene. It’s very short, but it’s poignantly funny.

At two hours, the film moves along nicely, undoubtedly a fitting condensation of the two-year experience of the expanded Tuohy family. Unfortunately, it had to battle against the dumb, romantic juggernaut “New Moon,” which had a super-titanic opening domestic weekend total of $142.8 million versus “The Blind Side,” which still managed to gobble up a very respectable $34.1 million. Sandra Bullock and company will give you many more moments of enjoyment than any lame hormonally-challenged vampire-werewolf can offer.

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