12 Mighty Orphans, 2021.
Directed by Ty Roberts.
Starring Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Jake Austin Walker, Slade Monroe, Bailey Roberts, Sampley Barinaga, Levi Dylan, King Orba, Gavin Warren, Braden Balazik, Jack Michael Doke, Nicholas Reed, George Young Jr., Treat Williams, Woodrow Luttrell, Josie Fink, Carlson Young, Kelly Frye, Zach Rose, Lane Garrison, Lucy Faust, Jacob Lofland, Scott Haze, Ron White, Rooster McConaughey, Tyler Silva, Natasha Bassett, Heath Freeman, Manuel Tapia, Jett Green, and Larry Pine.
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.
In its opening moments, 12 Mighty Orphans shows some promise crosscutting between smashmouth on-field football collisions and the horrors of World War I, impressively blending the visuals as if they are the same. The thought of exploring the similarities, whether it be audibly, physically, or mentally, seems like the right approach for director Ty Roberts (he also co-wrote the screenplay based on the Jim Dent novel alongside Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer), especially during an era when the sport had almost no safety precautions in place and was all around rougher (there were no facemasks or soft shoulder pads back then), lends itself to a more brutal football movie. And it’s not that violence, and bone snapping injuries make things better, but it’s refreshing to see something not sanitizing the dangers and reality of impact.
Almost as quickly as the film positions itself as something potentially interesting, it immediately announces itself as a trope-filled underdog story. Luke Wilson is Rusty Russell; an orphaned war veteran turned teacher and football coach taking up work at the Fort Worth Masonic Home orphanage. Enrolled are at least 150 teenagers under the abusive watchful eye of Frank Wynn (a miscast Wayne Knight who comes across as whimsical while overacting in his attempts to portray despicable and nasty), who is more concerned with exploiting the students for child labor and making money rather than educating and encouraging them that they can still chase their dreams. His equally nefarious cohort is Mason Hawk (Robert Duvall), doing what they can to ensure that the orphanage doesn’t even get accepted by the Texas State committee to play single A division football.
Somewhere between all this, 17-year-old Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) shows up at the orphanage covered in blood. It’s quickly revealed that it’s the blood of his dead father, which one would assume would be the launching off point for diving deeper into the lives and personalities of these student orphans. For whatever reason (possibly time constraints), 12 Mighty Orphans isn’t concerned with that tragedy, only using it as justification for Hardy to be the stubborn non-team player of the bunch. He feels underwritten and underdeveloped, as do the rest of his teammates.
One of them has a girlfriend that’s in maybe two scenes, some are more optimistic than others, and all of them have never even held pigskin before, but when it comes down to it, there’s not much setting them apart from one another. The ending credits make sure to divulge lots of information about these real-life people (some of the players go on to have NFL careers, others successfully find work in other exciting fields, with a decent amount going on to be drafted in World War II), frustratingly making a few of them sound interesting after the movie has already concluded.
That means 12 Mighty Orphans becomes a series of obstacles to overcome, some of which feel earned and organic, whereas others feel contrived and not given enough time. The hurdles to becoming a team worth taking seriously and competitively are fascinating when the players are learning the rules and inventing what is now known as a “spread offense” to better take advantage of their speed against teams consisting of players that are bigger and tackle harder. Unfortunately, the rest involves everything from nauseating inspirational dialogue and speeches (Luke Wilson is also occasionally not convincing in the role), a team physician/manager played by Martin Sheen pressured to kick an alcohol addiction to set a better behavioral example for the players, Wayne Knight’s Frank pulling out every underhanded trick in the book to derail the season once it becomes evident that the orphans might be able to coexist and go all the way to a championship game, and the usual in-house fighting between students that doesn’t amount to much because we don’t know or care about them beyond the basic principle of hoping they go on to have fulfilling lives despite being orphans.
In one subplot that turns out to be a waste of time, a mother shows up to the orphanage proud of her son for becoming a star player on the underdog team, overacting and practically begging for him to come home with her. That part is believable; it’s reasonable to accept that a parent would return to the child they abandoned for their own personal gain. The issue is that none of it is well-acted or meaningful, considering that the story only cares about Rusty when it comes to character focus. Nevertheless, the roadblocks pile up until inevitably catching up to the in medias res beginning. Giving credit where credit is due, the game itself is shot excitingly, emphasizing the sport’s brutality.
Of course, 12 Mighty Orphans is about family more than football, so it would be nice if the family members were more vital as characters. As it stands, it’s a standard inspirational sports drama that never follows through on its attempts to contrast football and war. The opening narration even has lines about correlations between the Great Depression and dustbowls that never come back around to make a point. In the right hands, this true story could be as mighty as its scrappy and feisty football team, but all that potential is fumbled.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com