Tribeca Film Festival 2021 Review: 12 Mighty Orphans

Year: 2021
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Ty Roberts
Writer: Jim Dent (Novel), Lane Garrison, Kevin Meyer, Ty Roberts (Screenplay)
Actors: Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall, Wayne Knight, Treat Williams

By Tom Moore

With the usual feels of an inspirational sports story that comes with an interesting historical backbone, “12 Mighty Orphans” provides enough heartfelt goods.

There’s no sport movies love to romanticize and showcase as a pivotal component in coming together to overcome seemingly impossible odds more than American Football. Whether its overcoming racial divide, rough upbringings, terrible tragedy, or just wanting to see that obnoxious rich football team lose to the raggedy underdogs, football is mostly the sport of choice it seems. This film definitely falls into that same bucket of films like “Gridiron Gang” (2006), “We Are Marshall”(2006), or whichever one you favor as it tells the story, based around Jim Dent’s novel, of devoted high school coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) leading a ragtag group of orphans to become one of the top football teams in Fort Worth, Texas during the Great Depression.

All the ingredients for a heartfelt sports story can easily be found in “12 Mighty Orphans” and its band of struggling orphans. The discrimination they face from league organizers and rival coaches fuels their fire to win. The hardships they face in not having parental support and the abuse they endure from the orphanage’s main caretaker Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight) instantly make you care about them. Rusty’s desire to push the team to be their best and believe in something past just being in this orphanage creates some inspiring moments that resonate with the team coming together. Even the performances match these heartfelt vibes pretty well.

Ever since seeing him in “Stargirl”, I’ve really enjoyed seeing Wilson go for more dramatic, leadership roles and he continues to do really well here. He’s able to bring out both the slight pain that Rusty suffers from fighting in WWI and the genuine care he has for helping people greatly. Martin Sheen also adds in some heartwarming and comedic charm as Rusty’s assistant coach Doc Hall. As for the titular team, the performances across the board are solid with Jake Austin Walker being a standout as a young Hardy Brown. Also being a fellow “Stargirl” alum, Walker brings the same amount of heart he had in that show and delivers an equally good performance that slowly brings out Brown’s inner turmoil.

12 mighty

“All the ingredients for a heartfelt sports story can easily be found in “12 Mighty Orphans” and its band of struggling orphans.”

Again, all the ingredients are there for an easy to enjoy inspirational sports story, but these feelings never reach past their base to be anything special. Outside of Brown, none of the other kids really stand out or have their stories fleshed out. Frankly, most of them feel like they’re there just to get the roster to the titular twelve. The story beats are incredibly familiar with it rolling through montages of the team struggling with the sport and then getting it together. Even the emotional speeches and the overall structure of the story are just a part of the standard recipe for these kinds of stories. It’s just a shame that a story like this has to come off so generic since it’s has such strong historical context around it.

Although Brown’s story here isn’t exactly historically accurate, he really did begin his football career at this orphanage before becoming one of the most prominent names in the sport’s history. We certainly see how he garnered such a vicious reputation as one of the strongest tacklers in the game and how he became a strong leader. It’s even interesting to think about how impactful not only this small team was, but the sport as a whole was during the Great Depression and the film highlights this impact. In a time where hope was dwindling among many Americans, football and the Mighty Mites were one of the things that made things a little easier.

12 mighty still

“There are definitely some elements of “12 Mighty Orphans”, mainly the historical significance of the story and the performances, that evoke an enjoyable inspirational sports story.”

The film attempts to acknowledge this through people, nationwide, showing support for the team as they face scrutiny and discrimination, but it just doesn’t go that deep. There are even moments that acknowledge the impact that the team and Rusty’s coaching had on the game of football as a whole with them using plays that hadn’t really been thought of yet that are cool to see but not dug deep enough into. If it leaned a little more into its historical significance and impact rather than cliché sports movie storytelling, “12 Mighty Orphans” could’ve been something a little more insightful. Sadly though, it doesn’t.

There are definitely some elements of “12 Mighty Orphans”, mainly the historical significance of the story and the performances, that evoke an enjoyable inspirational sports story. However, for the most part, it just ends up being generic and easily gets eclipsed by greater stories within the genre.

3 stars

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