12 Mighty Orphans is a sports movie about a team of underdogs, and, as such, there’s a certain amount of maudlin sentimentality baked into it just by virtue of its genre. But what’s perplexing about 12 Mighty Orphans is just how far it leans into the sort of unabashedly saccharine approach to storytelling that wouldn’t be out of place on the Hallmark Channel. It certainly has moments where it shines, especially when it focuses on the actual players on the football team. Still, it exerts so much effort in trying to be inspirational and force you to feel something that, at times, it’s entirely impossible to take seriously.
Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his family live right in the middle of Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression, and it’s with a certain amount of optimism that he accepts a position as football coach at the Texas Masonic Home for orphaned children. An orphan himself, he is determined to help the boys under his care develop a sense of confidence, self-respect, and home for their own future that will serve them long after they’ve left the orphanage. And because he’s from Texas, naturally, high school football is the obvious choice to impart these lessons. Together with the kind-hearted but alcoholic school doctor (Martin Sheen), he works to turn a group of thin, undernourished boys into athletes, innovating the game of football in the process. Recognizing that his boys are too small to face off against the burly players fielded by other high school football teams, he attempts to use his players’ smaller builds and speed to their advantage.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue with 12 Mighty Orphans is its insistence on using a melodramatic voiceover narration from Sheen, as he explains everything from the Great Depression to Texas football culture to the actual events of the film they couldn’t figure out how to either show on screen or do without. This is especially grating because it feels like an unforced error — there’s virtually nothing he says in the narration that isn’t easily surmised from what we see in the film. Hence, it serves no real purpose, and it makes 12 Mighty Orphans feel cheap and amateurish when it doesn’t need to. When you have a true story as genuinely inspiring as this, there’s no need to embellish it or use tacky narrative devices to try to wring every ounce of emotion from the viewer. Trust that it will elicit a reaction all on its own, or your efforts will likely, as they do here, have a counterproductive effect.
12 Mighty Orphans is at its best when it focuses entirely on the actual orphans. If this movie selected as its main protagonist Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), an orphan recovering from the trauma of witnessing his father be murdered and the most talented player on the team, it wouldn’t need to push so hard for emotional resonance. But for some reason, it seems to think that Rusty is the most compelling figure to construct a narrative around when they would likely have been better off giving more attention to the boys.
They’re who we empathize with: determined young men overcoming adversity and fighting for a better life. So it feels misjudged that we should spend so much time with Rusty while we barely learn the names of half the football team. It also certainly doesn’t help that Luke Wilson, an actor who has never quite had the charisma to headline a film even under the best of circumstances, peculiarly seems to be on autopilot. His performance reads like he watched Remember the Titans and Dead Poets Society, then spent a week broadening his Texan accent and called it a day.
If you want an extremely generic inspirational sports story, 12 Mighty Orphans will be right up your alley. And look, there’s no denying it has its share of emotional moments. But it tries so hard to move you that it ends up aiming for poignancy and completely overshoots, landing in total schmaltz. There’s an overwhelming sense that if 12 Mighty Orphans could just get out of its own way, it could be a real winner. After all, a real-life football story about underdog orphans? How do you not hit that out of the park? But sadly, 12 Mighty Orphans fails to capitalize on its potential instead of languishing as a run-of-the-mill sports story with little to make it stand out.