12 Mighty Orphans may be a formulaic sports movie telling a familiar underdog story, but the movie follows the template well and elevates the narrative with good performances and on-screen chemistry.
Seen through an authentic period lens (and then handled by a sloppy editor), 12 Mighty Orphans features soldier-turn-football coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) at the forefront preparing for his new job teaching at an orphanage and motivating young men. His students are not delinquents, but their spirits are broken as the teens are reminded, day in and day out by their dean Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), that they’re only good for manual labour. Using football as a driving force to boost their self-esteem and to encourage awareness of their own worth, Russell and his assistant coach Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) inspire the team to compete within the same league as experienced high school teams, facing doubtful accusations by opposing coaches and Wynn.
12 Mighty Orphans moves fast – sometimes too fast. The overlapping editing style treats seemingly important memories and personal struggles as minor details to move forward towards gameplay. But, skimming over characterization means the audience doesn’t receive a deeper insight to any of the main players in 12 Mighty Orphans (backstories of individual orphans, Russell’s PTSD, Hall’s alcoholism to name a few threads). Even then, the film clips a lot of the gameplay as well. My jaw just about hit the floor when only the second half of a climactic game was shown. And when the movie delves into montages, it feels like we’re watching clips of deleted scenes that may be included on the DVD instead of being shown significant information that may help us in the moment.
But, as stated, 12 Mighty Orphans still wins us over with classy performances and entertainment value. Sheen is great, Wilson and Knight offer the best work they’ve done in quite some time, and the rollicking teammates at the orphanage have heartfelt charisma, some really good zingers, and the ability to stand out in their own roles. Despite the aforementioned setbacks and some thick melodrama, I was still riveted by the football games (though some injuries are too gruesome for a wholesome film like this), and I was excited to see word-of-mouth catch on about these underdogs.
While 12 Mighty Orphans may not match the high bar set by The Grizzlies in terms of conviction and memorability, the movie still deserves to be ranked next to other crowd-pleasing fare like Remember the Titans, Invincible, and Gridiron Gang. It’s a good old-fashioned period sports movie.
12 Mighty Orphans is now playing in Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg with other cities to follow.
Peterborough audiences can catch the film for one-night-only at the Peterborough Memorial Centre on Monday, August 16 (click here for more details).
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie