“Inspired by Real Events,” and based on Jim Dent’s novel, “12 Mighty Orphans” has Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) arriving at the Masonic House in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), and their young girl Betty (Josie Fink). At the same time, troubled teenager Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) is brought to the orphanage, his father has passed away, and his mother is gone. Rusty came to teach math and science and coach football; Juanita will teach English and music. Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), runs the orphanage with a steady hand and a paddle named “Bertha” which he uses to keep the boys in line. Frank also runs a print shop at the school, which violates many child labor laws.
Rusty, of course, is an honest and upright man and he befriends Doc who helps him run the football team. Most of the boys have never played football, let alone held pigskin. They don’t even have shoes. So begins Rusty’s strenuous efforts to do something about these troubled kids. He begins to espouse stories of belief and self-respect to earn them. Rusty confesses that he, too, is an orphan and a veteran. Unnecessary flashbacks triggered by her experiences with adolescents tell her tragic story. Rusty talks so much about “hope” it sounds like an Obama speech. The movie is so sweet you could check the label to see if it’s Disney pabulum. (Oddly, the distributor is Sony Pictures Classics).
It would be easy (and not inexcusable) to give up “12 Mighty Orphans” in its first half hour. When Doc tells Rusty, “The best horses are the hardest to break” – in reference to Hardy Brown who doesn’t hide his anger – viewers might reflexively raise their arms to prepare themselves not to be pummeled. In addition, there are many remarks about feared and stigmatized orphans, marginalized and outcasts, as well as second-class citizens. Rusty and Juanita talk about having a “chance to make a real difference” because life inside the Masonic house, a “cold and indifferent institution”, is said to contain “very few promises”. The filmmakers clearly believe that there is no point in saying something once when three times will suffice.
However, “12 Mighty Orphans” hits its stride once the orphans have been able to play their first match. That said, it was after Rusty took care of getting the Masonic team admitted into the league, and the clichéd montages of “learning” teens so that they could pass the educational requirement to play and practice their badly. in the field. The first game is against Polytechnic, coached by Luther (Lane Garrison, who co-wrote the screenplay), who still has a cigar in his mouth (that’s a clue for villain). To call the game a “David vs. Goliath” match, which of course the film does, is like stating the obvious. Meanwhile, Rusty talks about “heart, focus and conviction,” something the Ty Roberts film has in abundance.
The game is a failure, but soon Rusty, with the help of his precocious daughter, Betty, develops an innovative new lineup that begins to turn the fortunes of the team (and the film). It’s fun to see the Mighty Mites – as they are soon to be dubbed – start to win. The boys begin to develop the sense of trust and brotherhood that Rusty has repeatedly promised them. The team is so successful that the film’s fall into outright melodrama – when the mother of an orphan returns for her son – is forgivable.
That said, a subplot involving Frank trying to destroy the team’s chances, because he greedily wants child labor, is pretty gruesome; he is represented with the subtlety of Bertha. The attempt to disqualify the team, which – spoiler alert, won the regional semi-finals – features what might be the movie’s most hoki tune: a call from President Roosevelt (Larry Pine).
However, “12 Mighty Orphans” reserves its greatest emotional moment for a rousing halftime speech Hardy delivers in an important game. This is the kind of scene designed to be projected onto jumbotrons during local sports matches. And Jake Austin Walker, the film’s star player, enthusiastically delivers it. It might be absolute hokum, but it works.
Luke Wilson is perfectly adequate in his role as Rusty, a man whose contributions to football are worth documenting. But it’s Martin Sheen, who steals the film as Doc. And he even gets a scene that reunites him with his “Apocalypse Now” partner Robert Duvall, who plays an Orphans supporter.
“12 Mighty Orphans” is a great football movie. It’s just not that good. But sometimes it’s good enough.
“12 Mighty Orphans” opens nationwide on Friday June 18th.