Producers: Angelique De Luca, Ty Roberts, Brinton Bryan, Michael De Luca and Houston Hill Director: Ty Roberts Screenplay: Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer Cast: Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Scott Haze, Jacob Lofland, Slade Monroe, Levi Dylan, Treat Williams, Larry Pine, Woodrow Luttrell, Bailey Roberts, Michael Gohlke, Tyler Silva, Manuel Tapia, Sampley Barinaga, Preston Porter, Austin Shook, Carlson Young, Natasha Bassett, Kelly Frye, Josie Fink, Lane Garrison, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
It might be set in Texas rather than Indiana and during the 1930s rather than the 1950s, and involve high school football rather than basketball, but there’s a good deal of “Hoosiers” in “12 Mighty Orphans.” Based—loosely, of course—on a non-fiction book by Jim Dent, it tells the story of orphan boys at the Masonic Home outside Fort Worth who are molded by their teacher/coach Rusty Russell and his assistant, alcoholic campus Doctor Hall, into an underdog team that make it to the state championship game in 1938, in the process becoming plucky heroes to a nation suffering the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
This is obviously designed as a manipulative crowd-pleaser, and on those terms it works pretty well, though the construction is ramshackle and there’s a marked tendency to overdo, especially when it comes to the villains—print-shop teacher and nasty campus enforcer Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), who’s both an embezzler and a sadist, and sleazy rival coach Luther Scarborough (Lane Garrison), who will sink to any underhanded scheme to win. Rodney Kidd (Scott Haze), the head of the athletic league who conspires to cancel the Masonic School’s eligibility until confronted by someone more powerful, is just as bad, though smoother about it.
But the good guys emerge victorious over all three, of course, despite all the obstacles thrown in their way. The chief hero is coach Russell (Luke Wilson, stern with integrity), a World War I veteran who overcame the blindness he was afflicted with by a gas attack in the trenches and is—we learn late in the game—an orphan himself. He and his supportive wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), who also teaches in the school, help the boys pass the standardized test necessary for football eligibility, though only twelve of them manage. (Their small number is the reason that Russell comes up with the inventive “spread offense” that’s widely adopted by other teams afterward.)
No less important, though, is Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), who was instrumental in bringing the Russells, and their darling daughter Betty (Josie Fink) to the school to which he’s devoted his life and come to consider his family. Doc treats the boys kindly and, as he notes in a conversation with an elderly fan (Robert Duvall, doing a brief cameo) in the bleachers, had been trying to get a football program going for years.
Doc immediately assumes the position of Russell’s kibitzing assistant. But he’s also devoted to drink, like Dennis Hopper’s assistant to Gene Hackman’s coach was in “Hoosiers.” Sheen obviously has fun with the role, stealing scene after scene. Another recognizable face who appears briefly is Treat Williams, who plays Amon Carter, the publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Larry Pine, meanwhile, does a none too convincing cameo as President Roosevelt.
The boy who becomes the team leader and standout player is Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), who starts out surly and remains so, but is giving his all by the closing reel. He’s fine, and so are the other young actors who play his teammates (Jacob Lofland, Slade Monroe, Levi Dylan, Woodrow Luttrell, Bailey Roberts, Michael Gohlke, Tyler Silva, Manuel Tapia, Sampley Barinaga, Preston Porter, Austin Shook); they manage to give the individual players some distinguishing tics. Mention should also be made of the physical effort they expend on the field—along, of course, that of the stand-ins and stunt men who double for them, and the actors who fill the ranks of the opposition.
Director Ty Roberts has done this sort of period Texana before, in his previous movie “The Iron Orchard,” a low-rent “Giant” in which Garrison played a thirties oil wildcatter in Midland. His work here is a bit more refined, but not by much; he and editor James K. Crouch allow things to drag too often, and give a lot of leeway to the actors (Knight should certainly have been reined in, and Garrison too). The integration of archival footage and graphics helps, however. The script is awfully heavy-handed and predictable, with some outlandish turns and fulsome dialogue. (It’s based on a non-fiction book by Jim Dent, who, some may know, had much the same sort of problem as Mr. Sheen’s Doc Hall.)
But the crew has gone to a great deal of effort to make it all credible, at least visually. Cinematographer David McFarland uses the barren locales around Fort Worth and Weatherford effectively, bleeding out the colors for a painterly period feel, and the production design by Drew Boughton and costumes by Juliana Hoffpauir accomplish a lot on what was probably a quite limited budget (the football uniforms, with their leather helmets, have an authentically played-in look). Mark Orton contributes a complementary score, to which are added a few pop songs from the thirties.
“12 Mighty Orphans” won’t approach the popularity of “Hoosiers,” or of other hit sports underdog movies. It’s likely to be viewed more on the small screen than large ones. But if you can tolerate a heaping helping of corn, this Texas-bred David-vs-Goliath football saga could be to your taste despite its formulaic bent.