Could ‘Pride’ be a feel-good Oscar surprise?

Could “Pride” be a sleeper hit, not only with audiences but during awards season? The British comedy about a real-life alliance between gay activists and striking miners, which opened September 26 in limited release, could certainly be a factor at the Golden Globes, where distributor CBS Films had a surprise windfall with “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” in 2012, but could we be underestimating it for Oscars?

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Pride” is set during the UK’s year-long mining strike in 1984, when a group of gay activists saw an opportunity to ally with fellow social and political outcasts and formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, but the film is more a crowd-pleaser along the lines of “The Full Monty” than it is a gritty docudrama about poverty and politics.

We sometimes underestimate these kinds of feel-good films on the awards scene. Such sentimental stories aren’t always in fashion with critics or the academy, but every once in a while there’s a “Billy Elliot,” “Seabiscuit,” “Blind Side,” or “Philomena” that picks up steam unexpectedly in the Oscars’ top races.

“Pride” ticks some of the same boxes that “Philomena” did last year: it’s British, of course, which is always a plus with Anglophile academy voters; it’s based on a true story; and it has modern political relevance. Where “Philomena” tackled the abuses of the Catholic Church – the title character had her child sold out from under her by nuns – “Pride” offers a two-for-one deal of championing both gays and union workers against a common enemy: conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whom I suspect Oscar voters only support when she’s played by Meryl Streep. “Billy Elliot” took place during the same conflict, so we know the subject has struck a chord with voters in the past.

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The large ensemble is full of well-known and admired actors, including Bill Nighy. Paddy Considine, Dominic West, and past Oscar-nominee Imelda Staunton, along with numerous others, whom the screenplay balances surprisingly well; loaded with so many distinct and well-defined characters, the film could also be a contender for SAG’s Best Ensemble award, where “The Full Monty” pulled off a surprise win in 1997. Another British comedy, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” also picked up a nod in that auspicious race, though that film ended up stalling at the Oscars.

The big challenge will be to gather the support of critics and audiences. On occasion, sentiment can overcome soft box office and mixed reviews at the Oscars (consider “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close“), but success speaks volumes; it’s unlikely “The Blind Side” would have scored its Best Picture bid had it not been a $200 million blockbuster.

“Pride” is already winning the first half of the battle, averaging 80 on MetaCritic and warming the hearts of jaded critics who often pounce on sentiment. Stephen Holden (New York Times) says, “It is the kind of hearty, blunt-force drama with softened edges that leaves audiences applauding and teary-eyed.” Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) writes, “Talk about fighting spirit. I couldn’t have liked it more.” Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) agrees: “‘Pride’ is an unapologetic crowd-pleaser of a movie, but it has some potent points to make, and the reality of what happened has a power of its own.”

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