12 Mighty Orphans, a Spotlight Narrative entry at Tribeca Fest, is a film that looks and feels like it might have been made in the 1930s Depression era in which it is set. You half expect Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney to show up any minute, like in Boys Town. In the cynical exploitative social media-driven world we live in, this true story of a good and decent man and his ragtag football team of orphans is positively quaint and out of place, but somehow comforting in all it represents of an America long ago.
Although you might be tempted to label 12 Mighty Orphans an inspirational sports drama, the core of the film is really its characters, not the game at its center. Set in Fort Worth in 1938, it’s the true story of Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson in a role Gary Cooper could have played in his prime) a World War I vet who arrives at the Masonic Home to coach a group of orphaned boys and create a winning football team against all odds. Kindly and wise Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) is not only the area’s medical savior but also the assistant coach, and the pair make quite the team themselves as they whip this group of disparate players, each with a distinct personality, into something resembling a competitive team. There are only 12 players on the squad, so the dirty dozen must play both defense and offense.
This is really Rusty’s story. Director Ty Roberts, working from a screenplay by Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyers, does justice to Jim Dent’s book about a man battling his own unspoken past who finds his calling taking an unlikely group all the way to the State Championship. And it takes place in the heart of the Great Depression. The story is tailor made to tug your heart and get you to stand up and cheer, but Roberts doesn’t go the obvious route. He finds purpose in their story that resonates on a more subtle level. It’s not the obsessive Texas Friday Nights Light-driven football tale we have seen from this region, but a much simpler one told on a human level.
Wilson, a Texan himself and often underrated as an actor, fits this role to perfection. He is matched by Sheen, who gets to show a feistier side than usual. Vinessa Shaw is warm as Juanita, Russell’s wife who also teaches at the school. The boys themselves are largely new to acting and give the proceedings a freshness.
Among the rest of the cast Treat Williams is a standout as Amon Carter, editor of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Robert Duvall shows up very briefly in a welcome cameo providing a bonus for Apocalypse Now fans who recall that 1979 classic also starred Sheen. Only Wayne Knight, playing an over-the-top villain (Frank Wynn) who comes off like evil Miss Hannigan straight out of Annie is too much for the tone set by Roberts. But it’s not a fatal flaw.
Maybe if we all hadn’t just come through the kind of year we have survived this film would not have the inspirational healing power it does, but it comes at the perfect time, intended or not. Audiences who want to submit to it will be rewarded.
12 Mighty Orphans opens today in Texas – where it was shot – before going nationwide next Friday.
Producers are Brinton Bryan, Angelique De Luca, Michael De Luca, Houston Hill and Roberts. Sony Pictures Classics is the distributor. Check out my video review with scenes from the movie at the link above.
Do you plan to see 12 Mighty Orphans? Let us know what you think.