12 Mighty Orphans (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

If you find yourself pining for a good old-fashioned inspirational movie about underdogs surviving and thriving, working hard and believing in themselves, and challenging the big guys at their own game, you need search no further than Ty Roberts’ 12 Mighty Orphans. The title tips the movie’s mood—what could be more uplifting than a plucky band of orphans?—and yet there’s more. The story takes place in the 1930s, so the characters’ lives are shaped by both the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the setting is a dusty, impoverished children’s home in football-mad Texas, and the coach who aspires to teach the orphans self-respect through sport is haunted by his wartime experiences, his mind frequently mixing memories of trench warfare with action on the football field.

The story begins with the arrival of Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his family at the Fort Worth Masonic Home for Orphans, where he and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) have been hired as teachers. From a distance, the Masonic Home may look like a castle, but up close it’s a consistently grim place, serving primarily to house orphans (some of which have simply been left there by parents unable to feed them) until they’re old enough to fend for themselves. You might think that a football team is the last thing this place needs, but no one’s going to make a movie about orphans without some kind of audience-pleasing hook, so a football team it is.

An early scene, in which dividing 16 by 4 stumps most of the apparently adult males in Russell’s math class, gives you an idea of the quality of education they’re receiving. We also learn early on that one reason the boys are not spending much time on academics is that their labor is being exploited in the on-site print shop run Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight in an aggressively one-note performance), a purely evil villain supplied to contrast with Russell’s unadulterated goodness. Also on site is the kindly, if alcoholic, staff physician Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), who provides gobs of exposition as Russell, and hence the audience, learns the lay of the land.

An early title card reassures us that “this story was based on true events”, and in fact the screenplay by Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer drew on a book of the same name by Jim Dent (another of Dent’s books provided the basis for the far superior ESPN movie The Junction Boys). Without knowing anything about the actual history behind 12 Mighty Orphans, I can only say that it’s remarkable how well the events portrayed in this film fit the mold of classic sports movie tropes. Anything that doesn’t serve the sports narrative (the fates of younger or female residents of the orphanage, for instance) is minimized or omitted, the better to concentrate on uplift through football.

The neglect of the orphans’ education, for instance, is only material to the story because the footballers must pass a state examination to be eligible to play (spoiler alert: most rather improbably do). This sequence raises the issue, which is predictably left unexamined, of whether standardized testing might sometimes be a good thing, forcing otherwise neglectful school officials to have at least some interest in whether their charges are learning anything in the classroom. There’s also an unnecessary subplot involving the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which threatens Wynn’s ability to exploit the unpaid and involuntary labor of the students in his for-profit print shop.

I’m generally a sucker for a sports movies, even mediocre sports movies, but 12 Mighty Orphans really tested my patience. On the plus side, the technical aspects are all well done, and the production design (Drew Boughton) and costume design (Juliana Hoffpauir) convincingly place the story in its period. The acting is passable, with the exception of Knight’s cartoon villain, but no one really stands out either.

Here the problem: If there’s a single button Roberts and his team neglect to push in 12 Mighty Orphans, I’m not sure what that would be. The film’s lessons are not only delivered, they’re repeated and underlined to the point where even the most uncritical fan will beg for mercy. Granted, genre movies depend on the exploitation of familiar elements and simplified conflicts, but it’s still possible to bend a few expectations and work in a few surprises along the way. That doesn’t happen here: instead, 12 Mighty Orphans has been devised as a machine to deliver predictable and unchallenging emotional experiences to the audience. If that’s enough for you, you may well enjoy this film. If not, not. | Sarah Boslaugh

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