12 Mighty Orphans is a raggamuffins to Texas football glory tale that’s a welcome surprise. Ty Robert’s film earns its “incredible” true story tagline.
Please don’t let the current Rotten Tomatoes score fool you. Most of these “qualified” critics gave up on 12 Mighty Orphans before the end of the first act and began scrolling through their social media. Ty Roberts (The Iron Orchard) bleeds Texas red, white, and blue, from Mark Orton’s fiddle score to the twang of its leading man. It is the very definition of an inspirational sports movie that embraces its roots. The kind that Disney used to produce almost twenty years ago. 12 Mighty Orphans is cut from the same mold as The Rookie and Miracle… You just some patience to get there.
Roberts’ tale is based on Jim Dent’s nonfiction bestseller, Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football. Incredible true story, indeed. Texas Football isn’t just a game, but a religion. And these kids made it to the state championship. Oh, did I mention they did it by playing Iron Man, with 12 players, two-way football?
The film chronicles coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson, channeling his inner Tom Landry), a ragamuffin himself, and feels a duty to come down to the Masonic school outside of Fort Worth, Texas. There are “only” 150 students at the school; most have been displaced because of the Great Depression. He was recruited by “Doc” (a delightful Martin Sheen), who saw him inspire a talentless group of players with optimism in Pennsylvania to a championship. That’s something these boys sorely need, he says.
He is met with skepticism and some competence by Frank Wynn (ranging from cartoonish to downright nasty by Wayne Knight). He runs things with an iron fist, a trusty paddle, and a woodshop class that’s a sweatshop that violates hundreds of child labor laws. It’s the Great Depression in Texas, and you have to earn money any way you can get it.
Admittedly, 12 Mighty Orphans hits a plodding start, with a fairly pedestrian opening scene where some filmmaker saddles themselves with flashbacks to establish the main characters’ back story. It’s cliched, and the production doesn’t have enough money to produce it effectively. Wilson, who I have been notoriously hard on the past, was hard to buy at first when you see him on screen, mostly because of poor film choices and the predisposition to play almost a caricature of himself on screen. More on that later
What holds the film together through the first act is Sheen. He is different than many of the men and women in Fort Worth. He is a bit of an odd duck, but every ounce of him is practically whimsical. From his gleaming white smile to his howling fits of laughter to find the fun in any situation, he keeps things positive for the viewer like he does for the boys. However, he is a drunk, but not a mean one. When you think he is a school physician with a shade of Patch Adams touch, he hits you over the head with why he has gone his entire life without a family. It’s a subtly moving scene.
I’m sure this isn’t a serious biographical film in terms of facts, nor could it be since it took place over 80 years ago. It used Dent’s nonfiction book as the inspiration. Think of the best sports films like Hoosiers and Rudy? Those are incredibly loose on the facts yet are considered classics today. Do we know if Knight’s character is a real person or an amalgamation of several? Or just a way to move the plight of these boys’ stories to greater dramatic heights? That’s movies, people. If you love movies, you have to love genre films. And those are the rules.
That’s when things begin to change. You begin to buy into Wilson’s stoic charm and earnest nature. For the first time in years, Wilson drops the act he consistently adds to his roles to reflect the character of a true individual. That’s when you are treated to something surprising; if you are a football fan, this man reinvented the game. A passing attack and formations no one has ever seen before. He even invented the term “quarterback,” for God’s sake. The spread aerial attack has remained a staple in Texas college football. It’s now the dominant feature of the NFL, which is an annual billion-dollar business.
Yes, some of the acting, particularly by the younger cast, is overplayed and melodramatic. Though by the time the third act rolls around, Hardy Brown’s (played by Rectify’s Jake Austin Walker) halftime speech could have been eye-roll inducing, but it’s surprisingly rousing. I will say that Roberts’ go-to-muse, Lance Garrison, who so good in The Iron Orchard and Camp X-Ray, is wildly over-the-top here as Polytechnic coach Luther. He looks and plays the role like he is in charge of a Nazi fire quadrant ripped from a Indiana Jones film.
I read a criticism over the way Russell’s wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), is treated because she doesn’t have a say in their future, which was the basis for disliking the film. How head-scratching is that? How do you think life was in 1930’s America? Should we choose to change history because of the social movement we are living in today? We only embrace authenticity if it suits our ideals? What do you expect out of the Great Depression picture? You can’t have it both ways.
12 Mighty Orphans is not a perfect film, but it becomes a very good sports film before the credits roll. It has good production value and eye-catching cinematography (particularly the football scenes at the film’s climax). It also has the guts to stick to an ending that won’t be a crowd-pleasing one. It’s a solid sports film with good performances, and its “incredible” tagline is earned.