12 MIGHTY ORPHANS - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), Snoggs (Jacob Lofland) and Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) discuss the next play, in 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS.
Photo by Laura Wilson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

This true-story film is a feel-good lesson in brains over brawn and the value of persistence, a Depression-era underdog story about a team of orphans who revolutionizing how football is played. Viewers do not have to be a football fans to be charmed by this tale of scrappy outsiders that no one expects to succeed, overturning all those assumptions. “The Mighty Mites” is a team of 12 undersized orphans at Mason Hall, a Masonic orphanage and school, led by their science teacher, Rusty Russell, who was an orphan himself.

It is a classic story told in a classic style, but with a kind of Jimmy Stewart charm. Director Ty Roberts has a lot of fun with this historical sports story, giving it a scrappy energy, with the special help of Martin Sheen and Luke Wilson, which makes it just enjoyable to watch. The story is set in football-mad Texas, in the 1930s Great Depression, as farm families are struggling with the one-two punch of that and the Dust Bowl’s extreme drought, a blow that sent many off to California, after losing their farms to foreclosure. But hope arrives in dusty Fort Worth, Texas, in the form of a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a new science teacher for Mason Hall, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson). Russell is going to teach high school science and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) is going to teach English at the charitable institution run by the Masons, but the real reason Russell was hired is his reputation as a football coach at his previous, more-prosperous high school. The Masonic home and school houses both girls and boys, and while we see a few scenes

On the recommendation of Mason Hall’s resident doctor, Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), the Masons hire Russell with the hope of creating a football team for the school, to give the boys some hope and encouragement. The school does not have much – there is no football field, just a field. The boys don’t even have shoes, much less a football. While the boys are called orphans, that does not necessarily mean their parents are dead, as many were given up by parents unable to support them or even just abandoned, particularly older boys. It is a daunting challenge for Russell, but buoyed by his own inherent optimism and encouragement from wisecracking, alcohol-nipping Doc Hall, the coach/science teacher sets out to make the boys want to play football and become a team.

Russell knows his underfed, scrawny boys can’t just power though the opposing teams, so he draws on his knowledge of physics and a bit of psychology to remake the game of football to give his boys’ speed and grit the advantage. Some of the boys are standouts, like Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker). The team has a bare 12 players, not really enough for a full team, and they need to fight to even be able to play against other high school teams. But Russell is driven by his own history as an orphan and his experiences in World War I.

There is just a lot of fun in watching this brains-over-brawn process take place. The cast also features Robert Duvall and Rooster McConaughey,(Texan Mathew’s millionaire brother) in smaller roles. The film is a kind of love letter to dedicated teachers, not just coaches, and there is plenty of inspiration material here but the cast and director frame it with a kind of playful bravura that keep things from getting weighted down by that. While there is little that takes place in the plot that is unexpected, Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen are marvelous, providing plenty of entertainment as they trade quips and tackle their impossible task. There is inspiration galore but lots of pure fun, watching the unlikely coach and players tweak the noses of their snobby opponents.

Director Ty Robert’s script was drawn from Jim Dent’s fact-based book. Of course, the story has a villain (besides the opposing football players) and that is the school’s brutal shop/trade school teacher Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), playing the kind of despicable character he so often does. Wynn runs the school’s printing shop, which is supposed to teach the boys a trade and also help support the institution, a common thing for institutions of all types in that era but something ripe for abuse. And Wynn is abusive – he has little regard for the boys and proudly proclaims he “runs a tight ship,” always eager to beat the boys for even small infractions and subjecting them to constant demeaning verbal abuse.

There is much to like in this classic underdog story, which was inspired by real events although this is not a documentary-like historical recreation. Some of the events are real, like the big game that starts and ends the film. Mason Hall orphanage and school was real, as well as many of the characters, include coach Russell, Dr. Hall and the boys in the team in that big game. One of the highlights of the film comes with with the end credits, where we get to see photos of the real people and a little bit about what they went on to do, including that quarterback Hardy Brown went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL and the Dr. Hall, who never took a dime for his work at the school, inspired 47 of the home’s students to become doctors.

The film does a wonderful job of capturing the time period, with nice period detail and giving us a sense of the dusty run-down state of the drought-stricken landscape. The photography is fine, with a slight sepia tone and warm tones. Director does a nice job, with nicely framed shots, editing and pacing are perfect, and the right mix of character detail for involving story telling.

The film has a few flaws, some almost surprising given how well-made it is. One is the improbable casting of Larry Pine as FDR, who pops up as a character a couple of times. Despite that FDR is one of the easiest presidents to imitate, Pine doesn’t look like Roosevelt apart from the wheelchair and cigarette holder, but more surprising does not sound anything like him. Instead of FDR’s signature upper-crust New York accent, Pine sports a Southern accent. like the rest of the cast. Maybe Pine thought he was supposed to be playing President Woodrow Wilson. The accent is just so weirdly off, that it is actually distracting in those few scenes.

12 MIGHTY ORPHANS is a winner, an enjoyable and inspiring underdog historical story that transcends its period to connect with the present due to wonderful cast, led by Martin Sheen and Luke Wilson, and its skillful narrative. What could have been just a historic or football story becomes something more, a delightful classic tale anyone can enjoy. 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS opens Friday, June 18, at several theaters.

RATING: 3 out of 4 stars

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