Rusty’s strict persona finds its counterpart in Martin Sheen’s Doctor Hall, a man committed to these hooligans turned sportsmen but who battles an alcohol problem. The humble sharpness of Wilson and Sheen’s duo contrasts with the cartoonish villains trying to derail the team’s ascent to glory, one of them played by a clumsily violent Wayne Knight.
There’s a heavy reliance on montages to pack so much information they almost feel like trailers for their own movie. As Russell begins the player’s makeover from the inside out, feeding their minds with affirmations, we witness their rise in the public eye, with Roosevelt himself allegedly invested in their triumphs. Scrawny and inexperienced, their upper hand comes from their coach’s unique formations to maximize their speed. Russell is credited with devising the “spread defense” widely used now but a novelty then.
Surprisingly, with a story that appears so inherently conservative and WASPy, there is no overtly religious messaging. It truly is mostly concerned with the personal improvement by way of a mentor, even if it sort of dismisses all of the other factors that impoverished people have against them. Just like Mighty Mites become beacons for the masses, “12 Mighty Orphans” sells gung-ho aspirationalism.
In line with that forced innocence of the narrative, there’s no mention of the teens’ sexual awakening or much regarding their romantic interest in the girls they share the institution with or with their new fans. Rusty and Juanita Russell’s unbreakable marriage is the only union presented as legitimate (a player is also briefly seen giving his girlfriend a ring). In a way, Roberts’ movie exists in the same universe as “The Conjuring” franchise, which peddles nostalgia for a country of the past with traditional values and defined societal roles.
On a similar note, at least two of the boys presumably have Latin American heritage, probably Mexican: A.P. Torres (Tyler Silva) and Carlos Torres (Manuel Tapia). The lack of interest in them feels like a missed opportunity for deeper examination of this era from a non-white perspective. Surely being a dark-skinned orphan of Mexican descent was a different experience than that of the white teammates. We learn nothing about them outside from what’s in the end credits’ title cards. The most we get is Sheen saying one line in Spanish early on. There are ways to inject modern relevance to this coming-of-age period piece, starting with more fleshed out characters.
Football fans, or those longing for bygone days of old timey sayings and men with conventional character, may find enjoyment in the film’s spelled out structure. Others will be at the mercy of its barrage of inspiration, devoid of insight.
Now playing in select theaters.