Synopsis: Haunted by his mysterious past, a devoted high school football coach leads a scrawny team of orphans to the state championship during the Great Depression and inspires a broken nation along the way.
Stars: Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Jacob Lofland, Levi Dylan, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen
Director: Ty Roberts
Running Length: TBD
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Having seen enough sports movies to be able to at least write a small children’s chapter book on which ball goes with which game, I looked at the upcoming 12 Mighty Orphans and felt like pointing at it and saying, “I know what you are and all the cliché tricks you’re going to play”. Because, after all, there’s not a lot that’s been left unsaid in the case of these football movies about a rag-tag group of misfits that have to band together to rise above adversity. Plenty of films before it have gone the distance, scored the field goal, made the touchdown, and knocked it out of the park (oops, wrong sport) and while the entertainment might be passable, it was likely going to be fleeting.
Let me tell you that 118 minutes after I began 12 Mighty Orphans, based on Jim Dent’s ‘Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football’, I was the guy sitting in his living room in the dark watching the credits with tears drying on my face. Yes, this film got me and got me good, and it was for no other reason than it’s a well-made audience pleaser that steers clear of cheap sentiment in favor of heart on the sleeve compassion. It’s almost shockingly benign and while I’m not sure this approach would have worked with a more modern story, the period-set drama is the perfect playing field for the real-life events to unfold.
Arriving at the Texas Forth Worth Masonic Home for orphans in 1938 with his family, teacher and coach Rusty Rusell (Luke Wilson, The Goldfinch) has an uphill battle creating a team from scratch and gathering enough interest from the boys who’d rather do anything but play an organized sport. Forge forth he does, with assistance from a wised teacher nursing a not-so-secret fondness for drink (Martin Sheen, The Dead Zone) and his caring wife (Vinessa Shaw, Hocus Pocus) but with a number of roadblocks from crooked employees and, eventually, a local coach that fears Rusty’s “Mighty Mites”.
There’s a run-of-the-mill playbook for any kind of biographical sports film and director Ty Roberts follows that fairly close for the majority of 12 Mighty Orphans, but along the way he doesn’t forget to coax generous and gallant performances out of Wilson and Sheen, offering both men wonderful opportunities to shine. Roberts also handles some of the more saccharine turns with a stronger hand, not letting the film go slack as a result – we all know there’s going to be something that knocks things down before the final build-up, but the screenplay from Roberts, Lane Garrison (who co-stars as the Big Bad coach), and Kevin Meyer, doesn’t make that the true climax of the piece.
A film like 12 Mighty Orphans is one my dad would have loved to see and I’m sorry he’s not around for me to recommend it to him. Maybe that’s another reason why I was so sad near the end and also why I appreciated the film’s detailed information on where all of the characters we’ve come to know wound up in their lives. It’s more than just a “Dad” movie though, it’s one that all would be able to enjoy with equal pleasure.