12 Mighty Orphans: Football by the numbers

C+ Inspirational sports movie
Written by Ty Roberts & Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer, from the book by Jim Dent
Directed by Ty Roberts

This is one of those sports movies intended to inspire everyone to root for the underdog. And since it’s based on a true story, you might assume that most of it happened. But if you believe that is a re-creation of history, I have a football team I’d like to sell you.

On a simple level, the movie works. You care about the characters. How can you not care about teenagers who have been abandoned years ago by their parents and have landed in a hell of an orphanage.

But the movie is too precious, and too clichéd, to be believable. How unbelievable is it? There are not only one, but two villains so evil that you’d expect them to twirl their mustaches. Actually, only one has a mustache, but the other one sports a haircut that looks like a cross between the Hitler/Kim Jong-un hair style.

The Fuhrer’s haircut sort of makes sense, because the story is set in the 1930s. Right at the beginning, the narration tells us that the Great Depression and the horrific dustbowl winds were tearing families apart. Many children landed in these institutions because their parents couldn’t take care of them. We’re also soon told that, back then, orphans were looked down on as an inferior race; I’m not sure that’s accurate. The narration pops up frequently throughout the film, spoken by Martin Sheen, who also plays “Doc.”

The story starts when Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), along with his wife and daughter, arrives in a Fort Worth orphanage that comes out of the early chapters of Oliver Twist. The head of the place is one of the two villains I already mentioned (he’s the one without the weird haircut and is played by Wayne Knight). He carries a long paddle that he uses on the children with considerable joy. He’s also running a printing press with forced child labor.

Rusty intends to train the older boys into a football team that could compete with more conventional high schools. It’s difficult; the kids are smaller, but faster. They don’t have a decent training field and even buying a ball is a problem. But Rusty and the lovable Doc manage to coach them into a team that wins games – to the hatred of all other Texas High School football teams. Even FDR starts rooting for them. (By the way, Doc is a kind, philosophic alcoholic – like so many such “docs” in westerns.)

The film is extremely predictable; almost every scene can be guessed from the scene before it. And yet the ending is a surprise. I guess that at least in the end, the movie had to follow actual history.

12 Mighty Orphans opens Friday, June 18 at the Shattuck, AMC Metreon 16 (at least that’s what I was told), and perhaps other theaters throughout the Bay Area.