Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Aug 3, 2021
1 min read

Just because something sounds corny, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Or isn’t good.

12 Mighty Orphans plays like a lot of other inspirational sports movies. There’s a dedicated coach. A team of underdogs, facing personal challenges and met with public scorn. A drunken old man, a couple of villains and, in the end, some kind of redemption.

Except, unlike a lot of those movies, 12 Mighty Orphans happened.

Set in Depression-era Texas, it starts with the arrival of a new teacher, Rusty Russell, at a crumbling Fort Worth orphanage. His dream is to start a football team. His reality is a rag-tag gang of students who’ve never held a football. Who don’t even have shoes.

And yet he’s determined to win them over. And then get them winning games.

Of course he will – we know how these stories play out, or we think we do. (Because it’s based on fact, 12 Mighty Orphans sometimes has a few surprises; real life isn’t always as conveniently predictable as a hack’s screenplay.)

But even when you think you do know what’s coming, there are plenty of pleasures here.

Most of them come from the excellent cast. Luke Wilson – the less famous, more straight-laced of the two acting brothers, and a native Texan — is perfectly, immediately believable as the loving but demanding Russell. Martin Sheen gives great, light-hearted support as Doc Hall, his confidante and assistant.

The fine supporting cast includes plenty of familiar faces, too, including Wayne Knight as a fellow teacher (and over-the-top villain) and Treat Williams as a veteran newsman. There’s even a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a frail, 90-year-old Robert Duvall, doing his first movie in three years.

The young actors cast as the football players are less familiar, but have an easy camaraderie and give notably unforced performances. (Also striking: Stick around for the final credits and you’ll see how much they resemble the real-life teens.)

Admitted, Ty Roberts’ direction often works too hard for too little. There are a number of unnecessary flashbacks to Wilson’s traumatic experiences, 20 years before, in World War I. Although Knight’s sadistic character is right out of Shawshank State Penitentiary, the movie drags in a second hissable villain, too, just to amp the melodrama.

And as welcome as Sheen always is, it’s quite enough to have him drunkenly pop in and out of scenes. He doesn’t need to narrate the whole thing, too – particularly when he’s given ponderous lines like “The black cloud of the Depression loomed over the nation.”

But the movie moves along swiftly, the veteran performers know what they’re doing, and the sun-blasted landscapes linger. The film’s themes – teachers who believe in their students, students who strive to do their best – are inspiring without being preachy.

And just when you think you know exactly where the script is going – well, real life does have a habit of sometimes blindsiding you.

4 stars (out of 5)

12 Mighty Orphans