Triumphant sports stories about underdogs banding together to achieve victory are about as long in the tooth as Jerry Jones. As a trope, they can be an eye-rolling cliché. Done right, with honesty and sincerity, any of that artificial sweetener can be blinked away.
The inspired-by-true-events football movie 12 Mighty Orphans hits every one of those tropes with spectacular two-point conversions but the nobility of the story and the impressive lensing has this one avoiding any fumbles.
Rusty Russell returns to Texas to take a teaching position at the Masonic Home, an orphanage full of despair, woe, and (gasp) illegal child labor. He seeks to infuse hope in those dirty halls by coaching football. And it works. The boys, all orphans, band together and become brothers. As good as all that sounds, these twelve kids can barely hold their own let alone against other schools, so Russell gets tricky with his plays and adopts the “spread offense” that, essentially, elevates the position of the quarterback, a move that was seen as innovative for the time.
Adversity hits them from all sides like Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. Russell, a World War I vet, deals with his PTSD while also fighting against a highly-corrupt school administrator (Wayne Knight in his most mustache-twirling role since Jurassic Park) and a system that doesn’t want dirty orphans polluting their clean game.
Alongside coaching Russell does something else well. He listens. And that, truly, is all that is needed.
Luke Wilson plays coach Russell as the quintessential coach/surrogate father: quiet and thoughtful and totally Ted Lasso positive. The remainder of the cast is ably filled out by Martin Sheen reprising his role of President Bartlet, the aforementioned Wayne Knight as the deliberately-bad baddie, and a host of character actor and familiar faces like Treat Williams, Ron White, and a-blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Robert Duvall.
Based on a book by Jim Dent, the story is stirring and serious enough to rise above the usual sports rhetoric.
Ty Roberts, alongside DP David McFarland and editor James Crouch, shot 12 Mighty Orphans as if it was a war movie. Set in the late 1930s, Roberts deliberately avoided the high-gloss, well-lit candy of a YA treat. This movie is brown and dusty and dark. Roberts goes all sepia hued with dry, hard landscapes, setting the tone for the story ahead. Yes, the movie is good-hearted with a message but Roberts is not afraid to get some hard knocks in before the hard love.
Mark Orton provides the sounds of the dustbowl: slide guitar, banjo, fiddle. But he doesn’t overdo it. The music is soft when it needs to be; ambient at other times. And thankfully, it never marches to the wave of a flag.
At times, 12 Mighty Orphans looks like it was shot in the 30s. There is a grain and a depth to the movie. A heavy feel that amplifies each tackle. And a slight wind from a rushing touchdown. The archaic football equipment looks downright prehistoric next to the armor worn by 21st century gridiron heroes – and it should.
Yet for as old as the movie looks, there is a modern-day feel. The camera will elevate as high as the sunrise and sink as low as a muddy cleat. All of it is totally immersive.
Sports movies, like the games themselves, are often plied with a predicted outcome. What makes them entertaining is how they are played. Yes, 12 Mighty Orphans has its share of cliches but the storytelling is enjoyable. The struggles are open and raw. The optimism is fresh. Yeah, you know which way the coin toss is going to go but the sprint up field makes a sweet breeze.