Review: ’12 Mighty Orphans’ tells inspiring, old-fashioned story of gridiron underdogs

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews '12 Mighty Orphans'

Football flicks are best released in the fall, but after the pandemic forced high schools to hold spring football seasons across the country, we’re allowed to move the goalposts.

Earlier this month, “Under the Stadium Lights” was a sloppy letdown that relied on real game footage. Now, we get “12 Mighty Orphans” by Sony Pictures Classics, embracing old-fashioned storytelling to overcome its hokey moments with underdog inspiration.

Based on a 2008 novel by Jim Dent, the movie follows the true story of innovative high school football coach Rusty Russell, who leads a rag-tag team of orphans at the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas to the state championship during the Great Depression in 1938.

After hilarious roles in “Blue Streak” (1999) and “Old School” (2003), Luke Wilson tackles his most serious role since his suicide attempt in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001). His coach character has baggage both as an orphan himself and PTSD from World War I, as bloody legs spark flashbacks to wounded soldiers and dusty fields trigger gas-mask panic.

Jake Austin Walker stands out among the angsty adolescents like “Chariots of Fire” (1981) or “Dead Poets Society” (1989), Ron White shows up as a wisecracking sheriff, and Martin Sheen narrates as lovable assistant coach Doc Hall with a flash like Dennis Hopper in “Hoosiers” (1986), sharing an “Apocalypse Now” reunion with Robert Duvall in the stands.

As for the antagonists, Wayne Knight (“Seinfeld,” “Jurassic Park”) is an abusive orphanage administrator, while Lane Garrison (who co-writes the script) is the rival football coach at Polytechnic with slicked hair, dark glasses and enough cockiness to fill a stadium. Call them cartoonish baddies if you must, but they’re sadistic enough to make us hate them.

On the downside, there aren’t many female roles. Vinessa Shaw plays Russell’s wife Juanita, pausing from sweeping the floor to sit on the arm rest to silence her husband’s doubts. She even teaches young girls to sew special uniforms for the boys, but we never really meet any of them for subplots, so they’re just sort of there in the background.

In this light, one instance feels tone deaf. When a villain beats a kid for spying on the girls’ dorm, Russell defends his player by saying, “He’s 16.” This “boys will be boys” mentality is an unhealthy message for impressionable young viewers. Certainly, there was another way to insist that the punishment didn’t fit the crime without condoning the teenage perversion.

Still, most folks come for the in-game action, which Ty Roberts directs fairly accurately. Sure there are a few over-the-top tackles like “The Waterboy” (1998), but football fans will appreciate Coach Russell pioneering the spread offense and the wing-T formation, as well as placing the quarterback under center and revolutionizing laterals and the forward pass.

Fueling it all is the desperation of a 12-man roster playing both ways on offense and defense. These are poor folks playing in the hopes of winning the game ball so they have something to practice with next week. We appreciate their full-circle journey, starting out riding to games in the bed of a broken-down truck, then eventually riding on a team bus.

The semifinal game against Polytechnic is surprisingly anticlimactic, focusing instead on post-game shenanigans, underselling a promising story beat. Poly is set up as the big rival, so audiences deserve the thrill of victory here, only to then undercut it with new complications that raise the stakes during an “All is Lost” twist of a season on the brink.

No matter, the final state championship game is extremely well done, featuring a truly inspiring locker room speech of brotherhood. It builds to a final play that is both thrilling and commendable for not taking the easy way out, stressing more than the scoreboard.

Critics may walk away rolling their eyes at certain cliches, but mainstream audiences crave these type of feel-good stories. The end credits are inspirational, showing photos of the real-life coaches and players with descriptions of what they went on to achieve in life.

Mighty orphans indeed.

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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