By Alex McPherson
An uplifting, inspiring, though unremarkable sports drama, director Ty Roberts’ new film, “12 Mighty Orphans,” meets expectations without going the extra mile.
Based on Jim Dent’s novel of the same name and inspired from true events, the film transpires within the grimy, dust-swept landscape of Texas during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many orphaned children were sent to such places as Fort Worth’s Masonic Home until able to join the workforce.
Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), an orphaned World War I veteran himself, begins teaching math and science there. He is accompanied by his wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), who teaches English, and his young daughter. He also becomes the new football coach, with kind-hearted physician Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) taking on assistant duties. Rusty believes the sport can help give the teenaged players a sense of community despite their hardships.
With the kids lacking shoes, protective gear, and footballs to practice with, Rusty immediately realizes the challenges ahead of him. Difficulties are exacerbated by the abusive treatment the boys receive from superintendent Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), who forces the boys to operate an in-house printing press, as well as by the tempers of several players, including the mentally scarred Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker). Will they be able to overcome these challenges and acquire a renewed sense of purpose in their lives?
Offering neither surprises nor genuine thrills, “12 Mighty Orphans” rides on its crowd-pleasing cliches and likable performances to score touchdowns. While Rusty’s team pioneered innovations in football that became widely used later on, “12 Mighty Orphans” plays much more to tradition, for better and worse. Some viewers might be left underwhelmed, but Roberts’ film delivers a sentimental story of comradeship and hope during crushing times.
Indeed, “12 Mighty Orphans” offers a sense of comforting predictability that’s difficult to fault, even though there isn’t much to ponder once the credits roll. All the expected plot beats of the “inspirational sports film” genre are covered, including the value of perseverance and the true meaning of victory, with ample speechifying to boot. The cast of characters — especially Rusty, Hardy, and the other orphans on the team — are largely sympathetic and likable, with fine acting across the board.
Wilson gives a fittingly sincere effort as Rusty, conveying a stubborn optimism that yields both frustration and life-affirming joy, belying deeper insecurities. Sheen is decent, swigging alcohol and providing dry-humored remarks, in addition to delivering the film’s simplistic narration. Less strong are Shaw, not given much to work with, and Knight — rendered a one-note antagonist whose subplot doesn’t meaningfully add to the themes being explored. Lane Garrison is amusingly over-the-top portraying a petty rival coach from a nearby, wealthy high school.
The true standouts are the kids themselves. Walker brings a shattered, tormented quality to his performance as Hardy, portraying an individual suffering from impossible grief thrust into a new environment. His arc over the course of the film, as he discovers a passion for football and gradually bonds with his teammates, is moving and heart-warming, albeit easy to foresee. Jacob Lofland is excellent as Snoggs, a lean sap with a penchant for immaturity who nevertheless deeply cares for his peers.
Although “12 Mighty Orphans” fails to delve into its time period or the inner-workings of the Masonic Home with much nuance, it’s easy to root for “The Mighty Mites” as they grow closer as a family unit and achieve national attention. Still, overdone narration sometimes breaks the flow, especially when Sheen bluntly explains themes near the end, as do some eye-rollingly trite bits of dialogue and abrupt flashbacks to Rusty’s wartime past.
Fortunately, the film is so heartfelt in its ambitions, and ultimately affecting in its execution, that the numerous criticisms I have don’t detract much from the experience. Not everything needs to be an unforgettable, emotional powerhouse, and “12 Mighty Orphans” succeeds where it counts.
“12 Mighty Orphans” is a 2021 fact-based sports drama directed by Ty Roberts and starring Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Jacob Lofland and Lane Garrison. It is rated PG-13 for violence, language, some suggestive references, smoking and brief teen drinking, and the run time is 1 hour, 58 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B. The film is in theatres June 18.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.