Texas is littered with literally hundreds of triumphant underdog football stories so amazing it’s like they were made to be movies. When your state lives, breathes and eats the sport, it’s easy to make the simple act of winning a game appear historic, or the stuff of legend. The story of the Mighty Mites is, perhaps, the most incredible and 12 Mighty Orphans embraces the amazing aspects but also the real-life significance that football had on poor Americans grappling with the Great Depression.
It’s been said millions of times before by people smarter and more eloquent than me, that sports are a microcosm of life. That’s one reason why sports movies are so endearing and so reliably crowd-pleasing. Ty Roberts’ 12 Mighty Orphans is wrapped in American myth-making, of a time when poor people could put their hopes and dreams in the uphill climb of one under-privileged team or orphans. If they could become champions, then all of them could thrive in a better tomorrow.
The story, as captured in Jim Dent’s nonfiction novel, is rather remarkable. The dirt-poor orphans of the Masonic Home and School of Texas couldn’t even afford to have shoes on their feet, but their orphanage still had a football squad. That team would come to be led by former football star and war hero Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), who moves his family, including his teacher-wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) there to help turn a group of rowdy boys into responsible young men, and more importantly, a winning football team. That an orphanage barely able to feed its charges should have a sports team doesn’t even factor as ridiculous; this is Texas after all: God, Country, and Football could be the state motto.
Frequent flashbacks fill in the details of Russell’s backstory and clue us into his outlook. An orphan himself who managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps, working at the orphanage is his way of paying back for all that the country did for him. These recollections also take us to his fighting on the battlefield, cut with the action on the gridiron because, y’know, football is war. It’s a crass, ill-advised sentiment that is hammered home too often, but it gives us an idea of who Russell is whether we agree with it or not.
The boys face mistreatment, disregard, and abuse on and off the football field. They are constantly challenged as illegitimate by the school board and elitist rival coaches. Wayne Knight plays a corrupt member of the staff who both physically abuses the boys and leeches off of the free labor they’re forced to provide as wards of the state. Is there any wonder some of the players, such as team superstar and rabble-rouser Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), see their situation as hopeless? There’s something Biblical (religion plays a role, of course) about his turn from the darkness and into the light, with the aid of a Russell as his savior.
It’s all quite heavy-handed, but functionally entertaining as well. In particular, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the relationship between Russell and Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), a jovial, spirited alcoholic whose general optimism cuts through the grimness of the boys’ individual demons. Texas native Roberts is more comfortable capturing the on-field action, which has genuine moments of tension and struggle. The title isn’t a misnomer; they are literally a team of 12 and are forced to play both offense and defense. The threat of injury looms large because losing any player could be the end of everything. They face teams that outweigh them by 50 pounds and have real equipment; the Mighty Mites, on the other hand, use a makeshift football filled with baking flour.
Off the field, Roberts puts too much focus on Russell when it’s the orphans’ journey that we see capture the heart of a country, including President Roosevelt who couldn’t get enough of their story. 12 Mighty Orphans doesn’t dig especially deep into the class divisions and economic strife that made the Mighty Mites such a necessary beacon of hope, but it just crosses the goal line for those who want some feel-good with their field goals.
12 Mighty Orphans is in select theaters now, expands beginning June 18th.