It’s very hard for a sports movie to traffic in newfound territory. By its very nature, especially when purporting to be based on a true story, it moves in familiar circles. So, an inspirational sports story, based on real life, is going to hit notes you’ve seen before. Still, some films do it better than others. The newest flick of this ilk, 12 Mighty Orphans, happens to do it rather well. While there are certainly cliched elements, that comes with the territory. So, because it handles it all in a pleasing manner, it becomes a pleasing experience. This one won’t win awards, but it does go down easy, providing enjoyment along the way.
12 Mighty Orphans may not be particularly original in many ways, but the execution proves its effectiveness and worthiness. You want to care about the characters, root for their success, and feel the story was worth depicting. In all three regards, this one is stirringly successful.
Set during the Great Depression, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) arrives in Texas to teach and coach football at an orphanage. Welcomed by Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), he finds a desperate situation. However, things will soon change. Along with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and daughter), Rusty sees himself in the boys. He also develops a bond with Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), who will become his assistant coach. Slowly, but surely, he teaches the boys football. Initially, it’s bad, but before too long, they show surprising aptitude for the game.
As the team comes together and starts winning, forces begin amassing to stop them. There’s a spiteful coach (Lane Garrison) who hates their success, as well as Frank, who sees his potential money-making operation coming to an end. It leads up to a potential interference by the government, threatening the boys. However, they have an unlikely ally in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Larry Pine), who steps in. Then, it’s just down to the big game, where they’re obviously huge underdogs. Would anyone have it any different?
Martin Sheen and Luke Wilson are reliably strong here, while the boys are solid as well. Wilson is the leading man, and a steady presence, though Sheen gets to have a blast in a juicy supporting part. Sadly, Vinesaa Shaw is rather under-served in a generic supportive wife role, while Treat Williams doesn’t leave much of an impression. Wayne Knight is despicable, which is the intent, so while he’s hamming it up, it’s what the role calls for. Then, there’s Robert Duvall, who basically cameos. It’s nice to see him, but this isn’t his most inspiring work, and that’s being charitable. That being said, Sheen and Wilson more than make up for it. They’re the cast highlights, to be sure.
Filmmaker Ty Roberts handles the material in a workmanlike manner. Luckily, the material is well-served by that approach. Roberts’ direction is unfussy, yet keeps the focus on the task at hand. The screenplay, co-written by Lane Garrison, Kevin Meyer, and Roberts, is a just the facts affair. The main complaint is that things run a little long, but there’s a well-earned ending that mostly makes up for it. Garrison, Meyer, and Roberts trust in their premise, and while there’s no style points being given out in 12 Mighty Orphans, they hit on what needs to be hit on.
12 Mighty Orphans will soon be seen at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, so consider this also a bit of coverage out of the fest. The movie works, even if it’s following a well-worn path. Especially if you enjoy sports flicks, this is one that will more than satisfy. If that’s something that sounds good to you, be sure to check it out. It opens tomorrow in Texas (lucky you), but hits theaters everywhere next week. Give it a shot!