Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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LUKE WILSON AND MARTIN SHEEN, CENTER, POSE WITH THE "12" TEAM OF 12 MIGHTY ORPHANS

A period come-from-behind sports tale

A Texas orphanage in the dust bowl era (when Roosevelt's New Deal is starting up) is the site of this period sports drama, which offers nothing unconventional or unexpected but has some familiar faces in the cast for those in search of nostalgia and uplift. On hand are Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Luke Wilson and Treat Williams.

The main characters are the new math teacher and football coach, Rusty Russell (Wilson), who has volunteered for this job at the Masonic Home orphanage as a charitable gesture, and who comes with his wife Juanita (Vanessa Hall) - not much heard from; and the alcoholic elder statesman and school doctor, seen mostly as manager of the team and cohort of Russell, Doc Hall (Martin Sheen, now 80), who loves the boys and believes in them. His voiceover comments make the film's uplifting points. These are mellow and appealing characters and actors, and they better be, since we see a lot of them. Russell is a war hero with the flashbacks to prove it, though if that's from World War I those flashbacks go pretty far back. He seems to have unstoppable optimism and a can-do attitude. Boys without shoes and a single deflated football can't deflate his spirit. Doc Hall seems a great optimist too, though the fact that he's half drunk much of the time makes one dubious.

To counteract this wave of goodness there are the omnipresent bad guys, notably the school director Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), a crudely depicted meanie whose main desire is tp make money with the boy's work, though the screenplay doesn't show us much about what that work is. And Winn has various bad sport allies who appear from time to time. Officials are crooked and coaches of other teams are unsportsmanlike, sadistic cheaters who make the world of thirties Texas high school football seem a dangerous and unsavory place. But virtue and spunk triumph.

Among the boys, who come to seem a bright-eyed bunch - though most of them can't divide 4 into 16 when Rusty arrives and have no knowledge of football and little enthusiasm at first for playing, are not delineated in more than the sketchiest details. One exception, the key boy, a late arrival, is Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), the designated come-from-behind character. He has been pulled away from hugging his father's bloody corpse, whatever that means (we learn later), and he's full of anger and pessimism, but knows how to divide 4 into 16, and his combativeness foreshadows a ferocious footballer, though his bitter pessimism will have to be overcome. We know these hillbilly-looking boys with no training or knowledge are going to become surprise champions and Hardy Brown will lead them to success - if he doesn't kill anybody on the field, as seems iffy at first, or if the team's bigoted, sadistic opponents don't destroy them. Luckily, the publicity is great and before long the Mighty Mites have none other than FDR (Wes Anderson actor Larry Pine) as an influential fan.

This action is based on the eponymous novel by Jim Dent about the real-life 1930s-1940s Mighty Mites team from the Masonic Home and School of Texas. A competently pedestrian review of this movie by Carlos Aguilar for RoberEbert.com calls the adaptation of the novel "competently pedestrian." What he probably means to say is this story is cliché-ridden and thin, and the writing is so-so and the directing not much better. What the phrase doesn't cover is the tried and true underdogs-win content, the mellow, engaging veteran actors, the energetic, sometimes edgy newcomers, and the fun of boys running around pummeling each other for points and reluctant accolades and frustrating the standard-issue bad guys who try to stop them. All this is reliably and more than competently provided. The detailed and watchable football field action is enlivened by coach Russell developing a revolutionary new spread-defense formation to maximize his 12-man team's light weight and speed, putting it into action - a bit of true early football strategy history. Luke Wilson still has his authentic Texas voice that sounds good as a motivator. He quietly shines as the coach, and Martin Sheen has lost none of his mellow authority.

A couple of hours still seems like a somewhat long time for a story like this, but maybe not if passing the time is what you're watching it for, lying around at home video-watching some evening or afternoon. For that it can serve a purpose. And some of you may just get the uplift this film means to deliver and - it might even seem worth braving post-pandemic movie theaters where it is showing now. For winning critical accolades, no, even "competently pedestrian" may be too generous a description of reviewers' collective opinions, if the Metacritic rating of 36% can be trusted.

Robert Duvall, who is now 90, makes only a ceremonial appearance as a (semi-retired?) state high school official. He adds to the film's venerable feel.

12 Mighty Orphans, 118 mins., opens theatrically in New York City and Texas June 11, 2012, and will be featured at Tribeca June 18. Watched at home for this review on a screener provided by Sony. Now showing at Metreon, San Francisco; Century 25, Union City, and Maya Pittsburg, Pittsbugh, California.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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