“12 Mighty Orphans” is intended to stir emotions with unquestioning pride, never reaching the less pristine corners of the historical era it utilizes as a canvas.
This is a film about football innovation and friendly people assisting parentless kids in transitioning into more self-confident young men. It’s as formulaic as they come. This on-screen remake directed by Ty Roberts is competently mediocre, based on Jim Dent’s novel about the genuine 1930s-1940s Mighty Mites squad from the Masonic Home and School of Texas.
As a backdrop, a country emerging from the Great Depression is used. President Roosevelt launched the New Deal, and the country yearns for stories that promise a brighter future for all. Rusty Russell, a teacher, coach, and war hero, gets engulfed in that emotion (Luke Wilson). He relocates his family to an orphanage, the Masonic Home, to affect the lives of the resident boys both academically and, more fiercely, on the field.
Bombastic editing deployed early on and continued throughout, harkening back to Rusty’s days on the battlefield, drawing visual comparisons between combat and football. These segments, which mix archive film and black-and-white reenactments, cheapen the otherwise visually pleasing cinematography of David McFarland (even if he likely shot those unfortunate snippets too).
The bulk of the guys we meet, even those chosen for the dozen in question, don’t have much of a background; others never even speak. Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), the obligatory rambunctious sheep, is a remarkable exception. Following both biblical parables and clichés relevant to films about coaches and underdog teams, he is the prodigal son who returns, showing himself necessary. He’s the MVP who might have quickly gone MIA if it hadn’t been for Rusty’s intervention.
Walker’s performance is infused with pent-up rage. His hazardous self-destructiveness and pessimism provide an edgier tone to “12 Mighty Orphans.” Despite our awareness of the story’s predictable development, he breaks through Russell’s sugary inevitability. Given a more complex playing ground, this young actor is capable of spectacular, can’t-miss performances.
At the very least, Roberts, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer, understands that his actors are his sole irreplaceable assets. Wilson’s straight-man panache, delivered in extensive motivating lectures about his lack of self-worth as an orphan, hammers home his position as a field pastor, hesitant to leave his flock unattended. A few incidences of PTSD make this character vulnerable while also providing Wilson with an opportunity to demonstrate sincere paternalism. This true-crime drama will look well on Wilson’s CV.
The severe character parallels Martin Sheen’s Doctor Hall, a guy dedicated to these hooligans who become sportsmen but struggle with alcohol. Wilson and Sheen’s modest clarity contrasts with the cartoonish villains attempting to disrupt the team’s ascension to success, one of whom is played by a clumsily violent Wayne Knight.
There is a strong emphasis on montages to pack in so much information that they nearly feel like teasers for their film. We see their ascent in the public eye as Russell begins the player’s makeover from the inside out, feeding their brains with affirmations, with Roosevelt reportedly engaged in their achievements. Despite being scrawny and unskilled, their advantage stems from their coach’s innovative formations to optimize their speed. Russell is credited with inventing the “spread defense,” which is now commonplace but unique.
Surprisingly, there is no overt religious preaching in a narrative that looks fundamentally conservative and WASPy. It is primarily concerned with personal development via mentoring, even if it rejects the other problems that impoverished people face. “12 Mighty Orphans” sells gung-ho aspirationalism in the same way as Mighty Mites do.
In keeping with the narrative’s artificial innocence, there is little discussion of the adolescents’ sexual development or their love interest in the females they share the institution with or with their new followers. The only real union shown is Rusty and Juanita Russell’s unshakable marriage (a player is also briefly seen giving his girlfriend a ring). In some ways, Roberts’ film resides in the same world as the “The Conjuring” trilogy, which promotes nostalgia for a bygone era with conventional values and set societal roles.
Similarly, at least two boys are apparently of Latin American descent, most likely Mexican: A.P. Torres (Tyler Silva) and Carlos Torres (Manuel Tapia). The lack of interest in them appears to be a wasted chance for a more in-depth analysis of this era from a non-white perspective. Being a dark-skinned orphan of Mexican origin was undoubtedly different from the white colleagues’ experiences. We learn nothing about them other than what is on the title cards at the end of the film. We just got one phrase in Spanish from Sheen early on. There are ways to inject current relevance into this coming-of-age drama, beginning with more fleshed-out characters.
Football enthusiasts and those nostalgic for bygone eras with old-timey sayings and individuals of traditional character may like the film’s stated out framework. Others will be at the mercy of its inspired onslaught, bereft of discernment.
Now playing in select theaters.