A film that perhaps tries a little too hard to embellish the emotionally manipulative story its true-to-life basis can conjure on its own accord, 12 Mighty Orphans’ “classic underdog” mentality is both a help and a hindrance to its overall delivery.
Set during the Great Depression, Ty Roberts’ syrupy drama lays focus on the saintly Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), a math and science teacher who’s hoping to bring some levity and clarity to the lives of a group of orphans residing at the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas. With his wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), and young daughter in tow, Rusty’s honest and good-standing personality already gives him the saintly sheen we predict the story will utilise to its fullest effect.
Wilson being a likeable actor means its easy for his Rusty to be an agreeable character, made all the more so due to Wayne Knight’s Frank Wynn stereotypically filling the villain archetype as the orphanage’s manager who runs the establishment with a firm hand and an even further paddle; there’s also the matter of the child labor laws he’s violating through the printing plant he’s running for his own profit. Knight is easily loathsome in the role but, like practically all of the cast on hand, there isn’t much subtlety expressed in his performance.
As easy as it would be for 12 Mighty Orphans to take the Dead Poets Society/Dangerous Minds route of an academic teacher changing their students’ lives through the wonder that is education, the film incorporates a sports element, with Rusty taking on the role of football coach to his titular team. The boys have never played football, much less even held one, so it makes sense that a good portion of the film’s near-2 hour running time is devoted to the dirty dozen honing their skills; cue montages and rousing speeches.
The film’s front end is arguably where it will test its audience, with the 3-person strong screenplay (Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer earning the credit) overdosing on cliched dialogue and sickly sweet descriptions that unfortunately obstruct Wilson and Shaw’s performances. You’d be forgiven for tuning out of the Disney-lite saccharine nature of proceedings, but once the orphans hit the football field for their first official game, it admittedly starts to feel like a more robust product. The mawkishness doesn’t dissipate in any fashion – one of the opposing team’s coaches is cartoonishly villainous with his cigar and flamboyant demeanour, and there’s a moment featuring President Roosevelt that is unintentionally comical – but the focus on the boys and their improving gaming skills allows some emotional rousing that highlights young Jake Austin Walker as the troublesome Hardy Brown, a late-teen who’s lost all with the passing of both his parents.
A typical feel-good film that balances its pros and cons in an equal fashion – for every eye-rolling moment of dialogue, you have the grandness of Martin Sheen, as another patriarch of the orphanage, elevating the material where he can – 12 Mighty Orphans presents a story we’ve seen before (and done better) but it’s difficult to not be a little swept up in its honest intentions.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
12 Mighty Orphans is currently screening in select cinemas across North America. It will be available on demand, digital, and Blu Ray/DVD from August 31st, 2021. An Australian release is yet to be determined.