I happen to love historical stories. History is a passion of mine and any story that can tell a compelling true story will get my interest. 12 Mighty Orphans, the true story of the Mighty Mites, a football team from a Fort Worth, Texas orphanage who played during the Great Depression, sounded interesting just based on that. After watching the trailer and seeing what a wonderful cast they had, Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen, I was hooked. 12 Mighty Orphans has stellar performances from everyone, Martin’s Sheen’s narration was beautiful, and the story was emotional and uplifting.
12 Mighty Orphans directed by Ty Roberts with a screenplay written by Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer tells the story of football coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) who an orphan himself takes his wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), and daughter Wanda (Lucy Faust) to teach at an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas during the Great Depression. His job is to teach biology and coach a football team while his wife teaches English. Both of them, along with the doctor who serves at the orphanage, Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), hope that football will give the boys discipline and hope, something in short supply at a home where the boys are mistreated by the principal, Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight). The boys, including Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), and Wheatie (Slade Monroe) among others, have neither shoes or equipment, their odds are long that they will even be allowed to play in the league with the other high school students but before long, they join the competition, vying with the lead school run by Coach Luther (Lane Garrison) and catching the attention of the press, Amon Carter (Treat Williams) but will innovative coaching and willpower be enough to lead them to the championship or will they be prevented by those who wish to prevent them?
This is a wonderfully compelling plot probably because it really happened. The Mighty Mites were well known during the thirties and even caught the attention of President Roosevelt, played in the film by Larry Pine. The historical aspects of the film are intriguing, especially the biographies of the young men at the end of the movie. The story is woven together skillfully, introducing Coach Russell right away and providing his background using flashbacks. While not normally a fan of flashbacks, his flashbacks are presented as a form of PTSD from WWI and are well utilized to provide information without overloading the story with too much exposition. There are a lot of details and the other method that the director uses to provide them is through the use of narration, specifically Doc Hall played by Martin Sheen. These details provide just enough but still allow the drama to play out on screen.
Another aspect that creates interest in the emotional elements. The writers provide context for the audience on the Great Depression, how bad events were for the country during that time and how many orphans there were in orphanages around the United States. This story is only one of many. What makes it so interesting is Coach Russell, Doc Hall, and how much they cared for the boys that they were teaching. These young men had nothing but the more they worked together, the more they won, the more hope they had. Football had the potential to offer them options. Even if they didn’t pursue sports, they learned discipline and teamwork, skills that would help them when they left the orphanage. The hope the young men feel is conveyed to the audience as we experience the ups and downs of the young men, as they struggle with getting along and with all the challenges along the way, including whether they would even be allowed to play.
Of course, at the core of this success is the performers. This is a very character-driven, quiet hopeful film and so it resonates so well because of the talented cast at its heart. Luke Wilson is stellar as Coach Russell, emotional and full of heart but never going over the top. Martin Sheen’s performance is beautiful, his narration as powerful as his acting with a character with lots of spirit. Vinessa Shaw as Juanita, Rusty’s wife, is warm and loving, a perfect counterpoint to Wilson’s character, and their chemistry is equally loving. The young men performing as the team of football players do an outstanding job, full of heart and not a missed moment among any of them. Even smaller performances, such as Treat Williams as Amon Carter are brilliantly performed. And while Wayne Knight is bigger than life in the villain role, it still works for the movie.
While I love the story, it does feel at times like so much is packed into the film. The writers strike a good balance on providing enough story to give us an emotional punch with each performer getting their moment to shine, even Vinessa Shaw when her character is shown teaching a group of young ladies but I honestly wanted more even knowing there wasn’t enough time for every detail. This story would make a wonderful series. But the film is quietly powerful, focused on Coach Russell with emotional, engaging acting. Especially after a difficult year, this was just the right amount of uplifting.
If you love stories with hope and emotion, this is one most audiences will love. Luke Wilson shines as Rusty Russell aided by powerhouse Martin Sheen and wonderful performances from the young actors playing the team of football players. The historical aspects are fascinating, with enough context to allow audiences to connect with the events of the Great Depression. The challenges the young men face provide rich drama and a simple story not unlike the stories from the thirties. I loved both the style and the uplifting story.
Rating: 4.5 orphans out of 5
12 Mighty Orphans opens in theaters nationwide on Friday,