A heartwarming true story that is well worth your time
Set during the time of the Great Depression, this is an underdog sports story about real-life football coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), who moved his family to Fort Worth, Texas, after taking up the offer to coach football to a group of teenage boys at the Masonic Home for Orphans. It is a rousing and well-played drama that hits all the notes you would expect from a movie of this sort and is an enjoyable if sometimes upsetting watch.
After arriving at the school, Rusty soon begins to learn more about the boys in his care and the traumatic childhoods they have experienced. As he is partly able to relate to them due to his own difficult past, he starts to bond with the orphans and tries to instil hope in them through sport and gentle mentoring.
Rusty isn’t alone in his mission to help these boys as he is supported by Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), the on-site physician at the orphanage. Together, they teach this ragtag group the intricacies of the game and steer them towards the Texas State Championships, where they eventually compete against school teams from across the county.
Standing in the way of the boys’ progress is their lack of confidence and the anger and resentment some of them have built up after years of disappointment and rejection. As such, turning these broken and troubled boys into competent football players isn’t an easy task for Rusty. Over time though, he manages to gain their trust, build their self-esteem and increase their skills on the football field.
There are other setbacks along the way, of course, as is usual for movies of this sort. Trying to get permission to let the boys play in the Championships is one struggle for Rusty, as the orphans aren’t considered eligible by the footballing powers-that-be. Then there’s the orphanage’s director, Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), who does his best to beat (both literally and metaphorically) the boy’s sense of self-worth into submission. These setbacks aren’t easily overcome but thankfully, Rusty has the resolve to take on the system and the snivelling orphanage authority figure and win!
You have seen this kind of sports movie many times before. From The Mighty Ducks to the Keanu Reeves- starring Hardball, many stories about underdog sports teams have hit our screens over the years. They haven’t all been exactly the same, of course, but the formula is always familiar.
Coach takes on a team of boys who don’t have what it takes to win. The boys gain confidence and learn some important truths about themselves. Rival teams look at the underdogs with scorn. The underdogs work their way up the championship ladder and experience victory.
Is there anything wrong with this formula? Not really, no. Provided the movies that play to this have the power to inspire and move audiences, the more the merrier! Problems only start to arise when filmmakers create carbon copies of other, better films, with little to no originality or invention to give their movies merit. The Big Green is a poor man’s version of The Mighty Ducks, for example, and there are many other terrible examples of failed underdog stories, including The Bad News Bears Go To Japan and the woeful Major League: Back to the Minors.
Luckily, this is where ‘true movie’ stories sometimes win out. As they are based on real-life situations and people, they are generally more engaging, more inspiring, and simply better than those that are purely fiction. This is certainly the case with 12 Mighty Orphans which isn’t as corny or as cliched as I expected. As the characters in the movie are based on folk from history past, it’s easy to be moved by their plight and limited life chances. As such, this is one movie I would recommend, even if you are hesitant about watching yet another sports drama about a team of no-hopers.
The movie is helped considerably by the cast who all perform decently. Luke Wilson is often underrated as an actor but he really shines here as the sympathetic sports coach. Martin Sheen is as reliably excellent as ever as the grizzled old coot with a drinking problem. Wayne Knight is suitably slimy as the orphanage director who beats the boys with a cricket bat he calls ‘Bertha.’ And the younger members of the cast, including Jake Austin Walker as Hardy Brown, a boy traumatised by his father’s murder, all deliver performances that belie their young age.
While based on a true story, some elements of the movie are fictional. Rusty Russell, who we are told was orphaned when he was a young child, actually didn’t lose his parents at all, according to this site. Frank Wynn, the abusive orphanage dean, met a different demise than that presented in the movie’s story (although justice is still served on this nasty figure). And there are a few other inaccuracies too, although nothing too major, so you can forgive director Ty Roberts for playing a little loosely with the truth.
If you already know the story of ‘The Mighty Mites,’ the name given to the boys’ team in the movie, you will already know how their footballing story ends. If you don’t, you might be a little surprised by the conclusion.
However, the story of these boys and the Coach who sacrificed part of his life for them, doesn’t end at the Texas State Championships. As the credits roll, we find out where each of the characters from the movie ended up and thankfully, we learn that most of them went on to have happy, successful lives, despite the hardships they encountered during their younger years. And that, perhaps, is the most inspirational thing about this emotional and heartwarming true story that is well worth your time.
Read More: 12 Mighty Orphans Ending Explained
Verdict - 7/10