It’s hard to imagine a football coach starting off with less than real-life hero Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) does when he arrives at Fort Worth’s Masonic Home in “12 Mighty Orphans”: No shoes for his team, no field for his team and no team. Nothing but potential, you might say, and that’s just enough for an optimist to work with.
A veteran of World War I and an orphan in his own right, Russell took those shortcomings and revolutionized the game. He motivated just enough players to form a team and then innovated the so-called spread offense to take on bigger squads from stronger schools. The “Mighty Mites,” as they came to be known, embody practically everything that underdog sports movies are made of, and director Ty Roberts’ treatment (derived from Jim Dent’s fact-based book) hits nearly all the feel-good notes we’ve come to expect from the genre, with one extra: It signals a comeback of sorts for Luke Wilson.
Born and raised in Dallas, Wilson never really disappeared from the game. In fact, he’s worked steadily since his breakout role in Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket.” But somehow his career didn’t really deliver on his potential, peaking around 2003 with the release of “Old School” and the sequels to “Legally Blonde” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Wilson has since aged out of the movie-star box Hollywood tried to put him in — the slightly stiff Southern-boy romantic lead with the charming drawl and doofy grin — and into a different character-actor category, where there’s room to flex a bit. Then along comes Roberts (“The Iron Orchard”) with a project that positions Wilson as the earnest Everyman we kinda suspected he was all along, something like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.
The movie feels as old-fashioned as those comparisons, photographed in a desaturated Dust Bowl brown and featuring uncomplicated, easily coded characters defined by one or two traits. It’s become fashionable to interpret Trump’s “Make America Great Again” motto as code for a sinister white supremacist agenda, but for a great many of the folks who identify with that phrase, “12 Mighty Orphans” represents the kind of folksy, clear-cut moral Americana they’re nostalgic for, and it’s no great mystery why Sony Pictures Classics decided to open the film (even before its Tribeca Festival premiere) in Texas and several other red-state markets.
Right from the start, we meet the team on the field of the state championship game, which tells us how far the Mites will go, even before discovering the modest origins from which they begin. Flashing back, the movie shows Rusty arriving at the Masonic Home, where he and wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) have accepted teaching jobs. It’s not clear how many young residents or adult authority figures the home has exactly, though there are two grown-ups who count: concerned/consistently inebriated longtime caretaker Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), who wants what’s best for the kids, and avaricious teacher Frank Wynn (a one-dimensional Wayne Knight), who uses them as forced labor in a for-profit printing press.
As it happens, 1938 (when the movie is set) was the same year the United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, prohibiting “oppressive child labor,” which may explain this rather Dickensian subplot. Knight’s cardboard antagonist exists primarily to create an internal foil for Rusty and Doc’s attempts to build character and inspire the orphans, who have no small number of adversaries on the outside as well. There are the representatives of rival schools, including the Polytechnic coach (co-writer Lane Garrison) who orders his team to “take that halfback out of the game,” and a last-minute rule requiring students to pass a standardized test in order to play, leading to a push to bring the seemingly illiterate orphans up to speed.
Such obstacles are par for the course in the genre, while others, like Rusty’s blinding wartime visions, seem downright hokey. The film’s novelty comes in the sheer goodness of certain other characters, such as, in brief cameos, Treat Williams (as Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter), Robert Duvall (as an optimistic backer with only a couple minutes’ screen time) and Larry Pine, playing none other than FDR, who throws a metaphorical Hail Mary at a key moment. It’s all engineered to pay off in familiar ways, though the movie isn’t quite as predictable as you might think — even if audiences can sense that Doc will be giving up alcohol from the first time he sneaks a nip from his flask.
Elsewhere, “12 Mighty Orphans” manages to subvert a few of the expected clichés to reasonably original effect, and the ensemble of lesser-known young actors is across-the-board strong. As redheaded hothead Hardy Brown, Jake Austin Walker shows movie-star potential, while the rest of the team have the knobby faces, big ears and bad haircuts that make them simultaneously convincing as 1930s orphans and memorable in much the same way as the kids from up-class boarding-school dramas like “Dead Poets Society” and “School Ties.” This one ends with on-screen text telling us what the real-life athletes went on to achieve, and it would be no surprise if the young actors go on to have equally sterling careers.