‘12 Mighty Orphans’ tries and fails to pull itself up by its bootstraps

Photo of 12 Mighty Orphans
Santa Rita Film Co./Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

In “12 Mighty Orphans,” a family shows up at an orphanage. One of them, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), the father, says it “looks like a castle.” He’s never seen anything like it. The mother agrees. The teensy daughter doesn’t know much of anything. So begins a dimensionless equivocation of football, war and harmony, condescendingly narrated as a faux history lesson. 

Director Ty Roberts’ film hails from a different time, specifically 1938 Texas. A nation is down, but unlikely inspiration emerges. Rusty, suffering from war flashbacks, has left a cushy teaching job to, in his words, do some good by bringing his football chops to a hapless orphanage. A couple of problems: He arrives to neither a team nor a field. 

Plus, the children are largely illiterate, and even if he manages to scrape together a team, each member will need to pass a proficiency test to join the league. At Fort Worth’s Masonic Home, the orphans largely fend for themselves — when they’re not being beaten or put to work in a sweatshop by Frank (Wayne Knight), the home’s patently evil administrator who later embezzles the team’s funds. 

So Rusty gets to work, churning out a few math and science metaphors on the field, while wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) manages the English front. The melodramatic kindling stacks up — the premise can be likened to a football “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” — while the film vibrates along with a homely Texas twang. Hope, courage and teamwork are laid on thick in this whimpering history of a scrappy bunch who did a bold thing. 

The distinctly dated film traces the orphans’ path to a unified front on the field, each development as unimaginative as the next. The problems start with the film’s downright boring use of Martin Sheen as Doc Hall, the doctor and assistant coach who makes up the team’s heart, but the issues are more pervasive. An uplifting montage makes Juanita, previously hesitant about Rusty’s unilateral choice to uproot the family, praise the new life’s dividends. In the same span, the orphans have transformed from near-brawlers into rosy readers, one of them perusing “Of Mice and Men.” 

While this edification is great, it’s forgotten the moment the boys pass their tests. After a disastrous first game loss to their rival, the orphans start winning — and making headlines. The film ditches its cogent narrative for increasingly manipulative jabs at inspiration as the team charts a course to regional champions. Meanwhile, sappy monologues usher in the moral uprightness “12 Mighty Orphans” likes to play to. 

On that upstanding righteousness: “12 Mighty Orphans” is shameless in its flimsy messaging. Brazenly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Larry Pine) is jammed into the film in a minute-long cameo that turns him into a figurehead for conservative, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, straight talk, despite the policies his administration stood for. A brief scene finds him saving the day with a phone call to the head of the region’s football league, who insists on banning the team. How much better this movie would have been if FDR had launched into a vitriolic spiel a la Jeff Kane of “Veep.” 

That head of the league marks one of the film’s lows. His stubbornness evokes a racist past, with socioeconomic prejudice driving his actions. The team becomes the put-upon, the film appropriating a history it doesn’t acknowledge for a mediocre story of virtue. Let’s not forget either — or dwell on much, because this film is abhorrently unnuanced — that the film flags its villains as queer, further embellishing the same appropriative effect.

The one worthwhile message offered by the film, it makes unintentionally: The strive for education is consumed by American athleticism. “12 Mighty Orphans” should have done its homework. The film ends in the solace and nobility of “giving it your all,” but flounders under its own weight there, too. 

The closing credits list the real-life orphans’ later accomplishments. But accomplishments are possibly the worst way to convey a person’s spirit — unless the film would like us to believe each of these players’ spirits is one and the same. Like the film, the credits grab at artificial, one-dimensional prestige from a myopic, respectless and soulless pedestal. What a miserable honor. 

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].