12 Mighty Orphans
Directed by: Ty Roberts
Screenplay by: Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison, Kevin Meyer, based on Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football by Jim Dent
Starring: Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Treat Williams
When it comes to Ty Roberts’ “12 Mighty Orphans,” prepare to break out your Kleenex.
No, no. It’s not a “Titantic” Rose-over-Jack-type Kleenex (why did that come out wrong?) situation. No, “12 Mighty Orphans” is the real-life story of Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), two teachers who gave up their own lives to inspire the next generation of boys at the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth, Texas.
Interestingly, Roberts treats us to a voice-over in the form of Martin Sheen’s Doc Hall, and he starts with the struggle in mind – to demonstrate a struggling, conflicted team. What follows is a revelation of courage, grit, determination, and not just a little bit of heartwarming encouragement.
The story, written by Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, based on Jim Dent’s novel, is set in the 1930s, deep in the heart of the Depression. We certainly don’t feel it, but rather, we’re empathetic toward the lack of resources, and we’re, perhaps, more understanding of the plight of the boys that inhabit the orphanage.
Instead, what makes “12 Mighty Orphans” work is how Rusty works slowly and methodically to bring calmness to the home, order to the boys’ lives, even despite the chaos happening behind the scenes. Wilson’s subtleties serve him well in the role. There are times when he boils over in anger, but he never shows it, and he knows that if he did, it would only serve to fracture the trust that he builds.
Martin Sheen is a little more quiescent on screen than his voice-over would indicate. Not necessarily an indictment of the progenitors of the story or the screenplay, but it seems that Sheen’s Doc Hall encounters his own demons, and I suspect this represents the personal journeys of the authors and screenwriters, generating an authenticity that I didn’t expect and made me appreciate Doc’s interpersonal journey.
Wayne Knight plays the sniveling, conniving Frank Wynn, a role that suits his personality and acting chops. Knight imbues a classic style about him, making him a perfect choice to be a menace for the role. Roberts’ direction evokes a very visceral and threatening reaction out of Knight at one point that would have had me quaking in my knickers if I’d run into him.
I’ve not mentioned much about the young men who make up the core of this film. This is where I would be compelled to compare “12 Mighty Orphans” to “Remember the Titans” or any of the other high-school level ‘Friday Night Lights’ sports stories. Yes, Roberts infuses the hope and optimism that fueled the comparative film. The difference between it and “12 Mighty Orphans” is not just in the way these boys get knocked down and get right back up, but in the way they encourage each other and ultimately become a family.
Russell created what’s known as the “spread offense,” which had never been seen. The trailer gives a bit of it away, but the idea is that by spreading out your players, you can cover more ground against a bigger, beefier opponent and hopefully gain the advantage through speed. The offense showed resilience, but it also showed a practicality through a change in thinking.
Ty Roberts’ “12 Mighty Orphans” shows the same resilience in its storyline, opting for efficiency against greater odds, capturing the attention of a nation down on its luck, looking, hoping for some kind, any kind of miracle.
A strong cast, including supporting turns from Robert Duvall and Treat Williams, makes “12 Mighty Orphans” a worthy afternoon trip to the movies. It is Recommended.