These orphans score touchdowns in this entertaining football story.
“12 Mighty Orphans” joins the football underdog club with “Radio,” “Rudy,” “The Longest Yard,” and “The Blind Side,” among many others. In fact, a football movie based on a true story is usually about the underdogs-ones who are underestimated by society, but prove themselves worthy on the field.
The movie is based on a novel by Jim Dent, who based it on a true story about orphaned teenage boys who prove themselves worthy out in the field-the football field that is. It’s about fighting against the cynicism and prejudice aimed against them, and while it doesn’t provide the kind of basis we’d expect in a history drama, we still see the players and coaches as individuals, and they’re well acted by the likes of Luke Wilson and Michael Sheen.
The time and place is Texas during the Great Depression. This was also a time when orphans were still considered “inmates” or “second class citizens” by the pompous folks, as the kind Doc Hall (Sheen) would describe. Wilson plays football coach and WWI vet Rusty Russell (1895-1983), who arrives in a new town with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and family, as they both get teaching jobs at an orphanage administered by the arrogant and abusive Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight). Given his talents and passion, Rusty must teach the orphan teenagers to play football, and Doc is now his assistant coach.
Because only 12 boys passed the aptitude test, these 12 are able to play against the high schoolers. So as the “Caddyshack” tag line states: “The snobs against the slobs.” I know this is a football movie, but the adage still applies, because the slobs (orphans) are against the snobs (high schoolers). And of course, they show them who’s boss and make the papers. Matter of fact, if they keep up the good work, they’ll make it to the State Championship.
A newcomer to the orphanage is Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), who father was killed and has a mean streak. Despite the fights he picks, he’s equally accessible on the team. And among the other orphans is the quarterback Wheatie (Slade Monroe), whose awful mother comes crawling back to the place she abandoned him and begs for him to live with her, but he rejects her. Ballsy move on that boy, I must say.
Rusty struggles to overcome his dark past when he and his brother were abandoned by their mother and when he witnessed his brother dying on the battlefield. But he’s also able to overcome his pain by motivating the boys to play their best on the game field.
Featuring minor roles from the likes of Robert Duvall and Treat Williams, “12 Mighty Orphans” is a football movie that wins you over with the personalities and performances. There are sincere moments regarding the abusive administer padding his boys, and when we hear Hardy tell Rusty about how he saw his father die. At times, it doesn’t follow the actual description of what went down back then, like Hardy actually being born in 1924 and not 1921, for example. You know how movies like to embellish elements these days. But at other times, you’re able to see the humanity and high spirits the football players and coaches have to offer.
Wilson is likable when he uses his words to motivate the youngsters without being too tough or cynical, while Sheen offers some sentimentality and narrates the film with passion. And out of all the young actors to portray the orphans, Walker wins you over as Hardy Brown (1924-1991), because he has real emotions and integrity, and the minute you meet him (if you haven’t heard about this real-life football player), you can tell he has a troubled life. You’re also able to see him as a human being underneath his anger.
“12 Mighty Orphans” isn’t about winning; it’s about overcoming the disbelief and cynicism, and proving to everyone there’s more than meets the eye. These orphans aren’t bums or scum; they’re people, too, and they win our affection.
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