Review: '12 Mighty Orphans' comes up short of the goal line
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Those who love a good sports movie and their cliches will find themselves enamoured by Ty Roberts feel-goodie weepie “12 Mighty Orphans,” one of those “inspired by a true story” underdog tales set in a post-depression era Texas where a scrappy young crew of outcasts must prove their worth to themselves and the world by playing football. Briefly exploring themes of PTSD/abandonment and featuring a slew of classic troupes and miscast actors, “12 Mighty Orphans” doesn’t so much explore its titular characters but writes them as bland stereotypes without much room to grow. I love a classic, cheesy, sports film, but the obstacles Roberts presents are packaged in a glistening, Hallmark package that doesn’t build any momentum let alone keep audiences invested until the film reaches the flimsy goal line.
Adding some pedigree to the proceedings, Luke Wilson plays Rusty Russell, an army vet who grew up an orphan and is now on the prowl to make a difference at the Fort Worth Masonic Home where 150 teens are looking for an outlet to release steam. All the kids are under the abusive and strict eye of Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight, incredibly miscast playing the cartoonish, mustache twirling, paddle swatting baddie), who exploits his students for monetary gain. Rusty hopes to offer an alternative and infuse football culture into their daily routine. Eventually, Frank becomes a thorn in Rusty’s side - along with an underutilized and rarely seen Robert Duvall who plays Mason Hawk - working overtime behind the scenes to ensure the Masonic Home doesn’t get accepted as a legitimate class A division team.
Of course, they do (and it won’t take a rocket scientist to predict that), but not before, sandwiched between all the undercooked chaos, 17-year-old Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) strolls into the orphanage with blood spattered on his overalls. We’re told, in passing, it’s his father’s and he “was found like this,” and then no such mention of it for the remainder of the films. I guess “12 Mighty Orphans” isn’t keen on exploring trauma among the squad and that as long as audiences understand he comes from a broken home, it should suffice for emotional integrity. Instead, it’s tacky and manipulative.
Standing on the sidelines next to Rusty is the team physician played with a carefree mantra by the always welcome Martin Sheen, but he struggles to add conviction, especially as a forced subplot about him kicking an alcohol addiction ramps up to no avail in one of several awkward interjections. At one point, a teens mother, cheekily-in-route with an obviously abusive boyfriend shouting things like “get the boy!” arrives to spontaneously take home her son for Thanksgiving after leaving him stranded for nearly a decade and it solidifies “12 Mighty Orphans” doesn’t care if characters act, behave, or say things like programmed robots.
Written by Roberts along with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer and based on the novel by Jim Dent, “12 Mighty Orphans” has a few moments that tug at the heartstrings with its “family over football” energy, but the football scenes don’t add much excitement to the proceedings nor get you stirred about the squad. Typical montages with flash scores and practicing unusual formations pad the film’s lagging second half, which, in a revelation that’ll shock no one, culminates with the “big game.” Sure, it’s fun hearing the impact and legacy both the Masonic Home and Rusty had on generations of young men who grew up through the system, but this conventional drama is far from mighty and not very compelling.
12 MIGHTY ORPHANS opens in theaters Friday, June 18th.