REVIEW: Despite problems, ‘Mighty Orphans’ still cross the goal line for the win

I guess now I know who to thank for the high scoring Big 12 games on Saturdays.

Luke Wilson is Coach Rusty Russell in “12 Mighty Orphans.” As the name implies, the movie centers on a group of orphans who live at a Texas home for children and teenagers without families. Sadly, their home has seen better days and one of the educators, Frank (Wayne Knight), mistreats the students.

However, their fortunes begin to change when Russell arrives at the school in the midst of the Great Depression, along with his wife Juanita (Vinessa). On top of both Russells being teachers, Rusty also has experience as a football coach. He decides to apply that and forms a team. As orphans, though, the unit has to fight for respect both on and off the field.

“12 Mighty Orphans” has not one, but two over-the-top villain characters, and it gets cheesier than a plate of your favorite mac and cheese. Yet despite falling into a few familiar underdog story cliches, this football film wins a person over after a while.

This is because the movie excels where it needs to. Scenes of the idealistic, forward thinking coach becoming a mentor to these young men and moments where the team’s camaraderie grows are engaging, carrying a classic sports movie charm.

This isn’t the most nuanced sports flick, but it embraces the heartwarming, crowd-pleasing energy that can hook in viewers. One can’t help get caught up at times with the stories of these students who finally have a mentor that believes in them.

Now, when it comes to characters, there are certainly hits and misses. Going to the negative firsts, the villain characters are comically absurd in this picture.

Wayne Knight plays an over-the-top teacher at the school who doesn’t seem to have a positive bone in his body. The character scowls when anything good happens for any protagonist in the movie.

Lane Garrison, meanwhile, plays a ridiculously flamboyant rival coach who chomps on a big cigar as he openly mocks the efforts of the orphan school. It’s all a bit much.

12 Mighty Orphans Blog
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Shaw is also a bit sidelined in her role as Juanita Russell. The supportive coach’s wife character is usually a small role with not much depth and unfortunately that’s pretty much the same here.

The rest of the characters are pretty solid, though, fortunately. For example, Wilson does good work in a more dramatic role, portraying the compassionate but stern coach and father figure.

The team’s doctor and defensive coordinator, played by Martin Sheen, is also a good addition. He’s a supportive voice in the situation and offers a more eccentric personality to the coaching staff, which is a nice contrast to Russell.

While an audience doesn’t get to know all of the team, there were some memorable characters on the gridiron, too. The most notable is Hardy Brown, played by Jake Austin Walker, who’s overcoming a traumatic experience throughout the movie.

Hardy and some of the other team members do have some compelling backgrounds and it helps make the squad’s journey through the season more captivating.

“Mighty Orphans” also offers a good deal of entertainment in its football scenes, especially for fans of the game. Watching Coach Russell implement the spread offense, as well as seeing the players pull off flea flickers and other schemes that were new at the time is fun. It’s filmed nicely and interesting to see the game’s passing plays develop.

I’ll admit, I am a bit bias since football is one of my favorite sports to watch. It also doesn’t hurt that this movie takes place during an era of football I’ve read a lot about, since the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a favorite team of mine, won five national championships from 1934-1941.

Still, I think there’s enough here for most to enjoy. Fan of the sport or not, there’s enough feel good moments for this to be a fairly enjoyable film experience. It doesn’t reach the heights as, say, “Miracle” or “Remember the Titans,” but there’s just enough here to earn a winning score. 3.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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