12 Mighty Orphans is both a film we’ve seen done many times, wrapped in one we’ve never seen done before, as the self describing story tells a kind underdog story, but one that drags us through the mud too much to enjoy entirely.
Luke Wilson stars as Rusty Russell, a successful Texas high school football coach, who relocates to Masonic, a Fort Worth orphanage of abandoned dustbowl young adults, who are being groomed for hard labor and a grim future. Russel and the team doctor, played by Martin Sheen, builds this group of young men from the ground up against all odds of being both parent-less and poor.
The film doesn’t have a mean bone in it’s body, and because of that works enough to make us care about this team and their futures.
Wilson is actually good dramatically here. Sheen is the heart of the film with his alcoholic team doctor narrating the film. Director Ty Roberts gives us a good throw-back football movie, even though it’s far from the game we know today, with the action resembling more of a blood sport than a Tom Brady game (passing is still new in 1938). The important point is that we care about our characters.
The problem is that the rewards are few and far between here. I was sad when the story ended. I felt like booing at the screen, really. These orphans are set up for failure and it’s tough to watch. This is also a historical film where accuracy is chosen over diversity and that’s not missed.
Ultimately, if you’re a football fan, or like a film that is melancholy but eventually happy enough, 12 Angry Orphans might get it done.
12 Mighty Orphans
Running time: 2 hours