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12 Mighty Orphans Review: One For The Ages

His brother Owen just returned to the public consciousness on the new Disney Plus series "Loki," but now it's comeback season for Luke Wilson too, with his starring turn in "12 Mighty Orphans," the true story of a football team full of parentless players whose drive and ingenuity would make Bruce Wayne himself proud. From writer/director Ty Roberts, the film tells the tale of legendary coach Rusty Russell (Wilson) and the "Mighty Mites," the unorthodox team and football program he built from the ground up at the Masonic Home and School in Texas in the late 1930s. With the help of his trusty, perpetually soused assistant Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), Rusty, an orphan himself, moves his wife and children to a new place with the goal of giving some hope to a group of kids with nothing to live for in a world where they're treated like second-class citizens. 

But in the process of teaching them the game (and also, y'know, math and science so the state will let them play), they create an aspirational enterprise beloved across the nation, a surprising beacon of light during the Great Depression.

"12 Mighty Orphans," based on its logline alone, has the frightening potential to be little more than formulaic schmaltz. But with an engaged cast and a lot of sincerity, what could have been another in a long line of interchangeable sports movies ends up being a sweet, emotionally nourishing picture that will wet even the driest and most jaded eyes in the house.

It's exactly the sort of family-friendly film they don't make enough of anymore.

It's a game of inches

When "12 Mighty Orphans" and its introductory framing sequence begin, with its overwrought narration delivered in Sheen's homespun brio, arriving in media res to halftime at an unknown championship game, one would be forgiven for being wary of what might follow. The film's opening possesses all the weaknesses of Roberts' last film, a sort of "There Will Be Blood" by way of "The Great Gatsby" called "The Iron Orchard." It was a beautiful-looking film whose production quality exceeded its meager budget, but no amount of melodramatic cross-cutting or ambitious visual experimentation could overcome a crummy script and mediocre cast. 

But from the moment Wilson arrives onscreen, looking so much older and wiser he initially resembles a softer Mark Strong, the film proves to have all the heart and earnestness Roberts' other cinematic outings lacked. 

Every sports movie has a set of well-worn tropes to establish, but "12 Mighty Orphans" does it all with a sturdy efficiency. Not long after meeting Rusty and introducing the Masonic Home, we meet the film's primary antagonist: Frank, a scummy and abusive headmaster played by Wayne Knight who doesn't want the orphans to have a football program because practice would get in the way of their current vocation — specifically, being endlessly exploited for his personal profit. 

It's not like there isn't significant resistance from the kids themselves, all high school-age teens who can't fathom a world that sees them as anything other than grist for the mill. It's a big cast to get to know, with each of the young performers availing themselves quite well, but none more than Jake Austin Walker's firing turn as Hardy Brown, a new prospect dropped off at the home covered in his dead father's blood who doesn't want to be a part of a football team, much less have to accept being abandoned by his mother. Though the teammates are all a little broadly drawn, the kids' chemistry with one another, and with their coach, is too engrossing to get hung up on the lack of originality in the story's structure.

Sheen's Hall is a welcome presence, making a great foil for Wilson's Rusty as both comic relief and a sweet-natured counterpoint to his stoic nature. The two men, together, come off like concerned parents of a group of kids no one else even treats like actual kids anymore. This emotional connection is bolstered by the dramatic reveal that Rusty himself was an orphan, one who survived the first World War and temporary blindness only to dedicate himself to being the kind of figure he wishes he could have had in his youth. 

There are, it must be said, a few Hail Marys in the film's structure that fumble its otherwise sturdy streak of crowd-pleasing dramaturgy, chiefly the decision to repeatedly intercut flashbacks to the war with scenes of the kids on the field. It's designed to show how Rusty's experiences in the trenches shape his mind for game strategy, including many innovations to the sport still prevalent today. But man, do they read as melodramatic and tone-deaf in a film that otherwise strikes the right balance between sentimentality and pragmatism. 

When it's at its best, "12 Mighty Orphans" is every bit as cathartic and entertaining as something like "Remember the Titans," but in its few missteps, it could be mistaken for a parody of that type of picture. Luckily, however, like that modern classic, it has a strong central performance anchoring it at its core. 

No I in team

Outside of his work with Wes Anderson, Luke Wilson is not an actor who has been given many opportunities to show his true range as a performer. So, in addition to his native Texan background being a nice touch for a tale so distinctly regional, "12 Mighty Orphans" proves the perfect vehicle to show Wilson's untapped potential. He plays Rusty with an unadorned maturity that only comes to actors later in their careers. One can easily envision this being a role for someone like Jimmy Stewart, or more recently, perhaps Tom Hanks. He just possesses an everyman charm and a warmth that is so refreshing to see, particularly since this sort of role often goes to more outwardly macho leading men.

It helps that he's surrounded by such cartoonish villains. Knight chews so much scenery as Rusty's in-house rival, but the film's co-writer Lane Garrison steals several scenes as the coach of an opposing team, playing up the fey, preening snake role to a T. In opposition to these antagonists, and alongside the rock solid support of folks like Sheen and Treat Williams as a sympathetic newspaper man, Wilson provides a steadfast, ever-present decency sorely lacking in the surrounding environment.

This is, at its heart, a movie about a bunch of kids trapped in a world ready to abandon them just as fast as the parents that ran out on them, each of them desperate for a figure like Rusty to come in and provide some much-needed love — even if they don't know it, or couldn't articulate it if they did. Wilson's performance feels like chicken noodle soup for the soul, the cinematic equivalent of an ASMR video reading you a reassuring bedtime story. 

Sure, the movie's reliable adherence to the tried and true beats of football movie storytelling works great and it's exciting to see Roberts further mature as a storyteller. But as much as "12 Mighty Orphans" is a team effort of a great many talents coming together, it's also a sterling showcase for an absurdly under-appreciated actor, one we all hope gets more roles like this one in the near future.