Inspirational sports films have practically become a tradition on par with events like the World Series, Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby.
Without fail, it’s expected – almost demanded – that there will be one every year.
Texas director Ty Roberts has brought audiences an emotional drama based on a true story from his home state, putting viewers on the sidelines with an underdog football team with an exceptional amount of heart.
His film 12 Mighty Orphans debuted in Texas theaters last week concurrently with its premiere at the Tribeca Festival in New York City. The drama stars Luke Wilson as Rusty Russell, the first football coach hired at the Masonic Home and School of Texas, an orphanage where abandoned teenage boys create their own sense of family by fighting to compete against other Texas high schools and vie for a state championship.
At times, it’s next to impossible not to roll the eyes at a sports film leaning so heavily into the melodrama that the orchestral cues meant to bring on the tears completely water down any sizable impact the film could have made on the audience.
Wilson is a compelling lead actor in Orphans, offering compassion to the students he relates to as a former orphan himself. His Russell provides a calm in rough waters and Wilson moves smoothly throughout tender moments guiding the young men on and off the field.
When the film moves deeper into Russell’s past, Roberts wavers on how well he explains the character’s military history, though Wilson is adept at finding a balance between Russell’s personal struggles and being strong for his team.
At his side every step of the way, Golden Globe winner Martin Sheen is a delight as team physician turned assistant coach Doc Hall. Though the centerpiece of his character is an affinity for sneaking shots of whiskey at any given moment, it’s surprisingly the one flaw written into the film that isn’t overplayed.
Sheen wryly provided the film with both gravitas and a warm, lighthearted comedic touch that keeps the energy in moments where Roberts’ film could go off the rails and he has a wonderful chemistry with Wilson that draws audiences in to the notion that the team could make it deep into the postseason.
Because there are twelve players on the team and a limited running time, some of the orphans get pushed into the background to accommodate larger storylines. Among the key players, Jake Austin Walker is the highlight as the standoffish, brute Hardy. Walker commands the screen whenever he appears and brings an intensity to his performance that radiates the apprehensive nature of the character perfectly.
For some reason, melodramas like Orphans artificially create villains to heighten the plight of the heroes and the ones created here feel exceptionally inauthentic.
Seinfeld and Jurassic Park actor Wayne Knight plays a magnificently spot on caricature of Snidely Whiplash, the old cartoon baddie who would routinely tie up women to railroad tracks and twist his pencil-thin mustache.
But in this case, Knight has become an abusive, thieving teacher at the home with no depth of character or nuance. From the moment he arrives on screen in the opening moments to the final scenes, his Frank Wynn undercuts all the heartwarming momentum Wilson and Sheen develop with the orphans themselves, shattering any illusion or viewer engagement.
The same could be said for the work of the film’s co-writer Lane Garrison, who is cast as a rival football coach with an impishly cruel streak added almost exclusively to make Wilson’s Russell look better by default. Not only does Wilson not need this to achieve the sympathy of the audience, but it also actually weakens his character by implying that both men are at the same level of their coaching.
Distributor Sony Pictures Classics has done the film very little favors releasing the film more than two months before the start of high school football two-a-days, where the anticipation for the gridiron would be at its highest.
Eventually, 12 Mighty Orphans will likely make its way into a rotation of feel-good sports films that high school coaches could play for extra motivation for the team before a big game ala Remember the Titans or Woodlawn, but casual moviegoers shouldn’t go out of their way to seek out this middling feature that comes up short of the goal line.