Review: ’12 Mighty Orphans,’ starring Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen

June 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

“12 Mighty Orphans” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Preston Porter, Woodrow Luttrell, Sampley Barinaga and Jacob Lofland. Pictured in middle row, from left to right: Levi Dylan, Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Manuel Tapia, Austin Shook and Michael Gohlke. Pictured in front tow, from left to right: Slade Monroe, Jake Austin Walker, Bailey Roberts and Tyler Silva. (Photo by Laura Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)

“12 Mighty Orphans”

Directed by Ty Roberts

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1938, mainly in Fort Worth, Texas, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” (based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A high school football coach begins working at an orphanage, where he assembles a ragtag team of teenage football players, who must fight for respect and overcome several obstacles in football and in life.

Culture Audience: “12 Mighty Orphans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in traditionally made “against all odds” sports movies.

Luke Wilson and Jake Austin Walker in “12 Mighty Orphans” (Photo by David McFarland/Sony Pictures Classics)

Unapologetically sentimental and earnest, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie that embraces its hokey tropes and ends up being a charming story. Most of the movie is utterly predictable, because there are so many underdog sports movies that have covered the same territory in a similar way. Somehow, it all works well for “12 Mighty Orphans,” which tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, a Texas orphanage football team that defied low expectations to go all the way to the Texas state championships.

People who already know this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this dramatic depiction is still compelling, thanks to commendable performances from the cast members. Directed by Ty Roberts (who co-wrote the “12 Mighty Orphans” screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer), “12 Mighty Orphans” is based on Jim Dent’s 2008 non-fiction book “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.” The movie (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) hits a lot of the same beats as other inspirational sports movies about underdogs.

There’s the coach who ignores the naysayers, motivates his team, and turns them into winners. There’s the talented but hotheaded team member who lets his temper get in the way of his sportsmanship. There’s the sneering coach from another team who can’t believe these ragamuffins could possibly be better than his team.

The movie, which takes place in 1938 during the Great Depression, begins with the introduction of Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell (played by Luke Wilson), who has left a comfortable teaching position at a high school to take a teaching/coaching job at the Masonic Home, an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas, that has about 150 children in residence. Rusty has moved with his loyal wife Juanita Russell (played by Vinessa Shaw) and their two children: Betty Russell (played by Josie Fink and Lillie Fink), who’s about 4 or 5 years old, and another unnamed daughter, who’s about 6 or 7 years old.

Juanita, who will be teaching English at the orphanage, isn’t happy about this move because Rusty took this job without even discussing it with her. Rusty will be teaching math at the orphanage, but his true passion is coaching football. The orphanage’s doctor A.P. “Doc” Hall (played by Martin Sheen) recommended Rusty for the job, but Doc and Rusty don’t meet in person until Rusty and his family arrive on the premises. Doc is also a football enthusiast, and he becomes Rusty’s biggest ally at the orphanage. Doc also serves as the movie’s voiceover narrator.

To his shock and dismay, Rusty finds out that not only does the orphanage not have a formal football team but the orphanage also don’t have football uniforms. Doc also says that when the orphans do play footbal, they play during two seasons: One season where they can wear shoes, and they other where they don’t wear shoes. The orphanage is so financially strapped that there aren’t enough athletic shoes to last an entire year. Despite these obstacles, Rusty is determined to put a football team together and have the team compete with high school football teams in the league.

Rusty gets resistence from the orphanage’s corrupt chief administrator Frank Wynn (played by Wayne Knight), who physically and verbally abuses the male orphans. (Frank has a large paddle named Bertha, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it.) Frank also forces the male teenagers to work in an orphanage sweatshop to make garments and shoes that he sells for his own personal profit. Needless to say, the sweatshop work violates all types of child labor laws.

Frank thinks that the male teens in the orphanage shouldn’t be playing competitive football because he thinks the time spent on practice and games should be used for his grueling sweatshop work. However, Frank is overruled by his boss, who tells Rusty that Rusty can put together a football team, under one condition: “It’s very important that it does not interfere with the day-to-day [activities] of the home.”

Through a process of elimination (some of the boys don’t qualify for the team because of low grades), 12 teens (whose average age is 16 to 17) join the football team. They call themselves the Mighty Mites. The 12 members of the team are:

  • Hardy Brown (played by Jake Austin Walker), an angry young man who becomes the team’s star linebacker
  • Wheatie “C.D.” Sealey (played by Slade Monroe), who comes out of his bashful shell to become the team quarterback
  • Douglass “Fairbank” Lord (played by Levi Dylan), the pretty boy of the team
  • Leonard “Snoggs” Roach (played by Jacob Lofland), a foul-mouthed jokester
  • Leon Pickett (played by Woodrow Luttrell), an introvert
  • Miller Moseley (played by Bailey Roberts), the smallest player on the team
  • Cecil “Crazy” Moseley (played by Michael Gohlke), Miller’s brother who happens to be mute
  • Amarante Pete “A.P.” Torres (played by Tler Silva), who doesn’t say much in the movie
  • Gonzolo “Carlos” Torres (played by Manuel Tapia), who is A.P.’s brother
  • DeWitt “Tex” Coulter (played by Preston Porter), the tallest person on the team
  • Ray Coulter (played by Austin Shook), Tex’s brother
  • Clyde “Chicken” Roberts (played by Sampley Barinaga), a redhead who overcomes his fears to become a solid team player

Abusive orphanage administrator Wayne is the story’s biggest villain, but the movie also has other antagonists. Luther (played by Lane Garrison) is a cigar-chewing, arrogant businessman who has invested in a rival football team. He’s dead-set against letting the Mighty Mites play in the high school football league because he thinks the orphanage isn’t a legitimate school. “Orphan football,” Luther sasy to himself disgust. “That’s as dumb as letting women vote.”

During a football league hearing to decide whether or not the Mighty Mites can compete against other high school football teams, Luther objects because of the rule that a competing school must have at least 500 students. However, Rusty has found a clause in the rulebook that can make an exception for a team if the coaches of the other high schools give a majority vote to allow the team. Rodney Kidd (played by Scott Haze), who happens to be Luther’s brother-in-law, is presiding over the hearing.

Luther thinks that his family connection will give him an easy advantage in this battle. But to Luther’s anger and disappointment, the coaches of the other high schools vote by a majority to let the Mighty Mites compete in the league. It can be presumed that these other coaches probably thought that these orphans would be easy to defeat in football games, so that’s why they readily allowed the Mighty Mites into the league.

But as what happens in underdog stories like this one, the Mighty Mites were severely underestimated. They start winning games and become folk heroes. The team attracts the attention of businessman Mason Hawk (played by Robert Duvall, in a small role), who invests in the Mighty Mites. (“Apocalypse Now” co-stars Sheen and Duvall have a scene together in “12 Mighty Orphans.”) Later in the story, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Larry Pine) becomes a Mighty Mites fan. Treat Williams has a small role as Amon Carter, founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

And every underdog story seems to have emotional baggage and trauma. Hardy is a very talented football player, but he has an explosive temper that can get him into trouble. Why is he so angry? Before he came to the orphanage, he was found lying next to his dead father (who was murdered), and Hardy’s mother didn’t want to take care of Hardy, so she sent him to live in the orphanage.

C.D. also has a mother who abandoned him at the orphanage, when he was 7 years old, after C.D.’s father left the family. C.D. hasn’t seen his mother in the 10 years since then. When C.D. mother’s Wanda (played by Lucy Faust) unexpectedly shows up at the orphanage with her current husband, it leads to an emotionally raw confrontation that’s very melodramatic, but it fits well in this often-melodramatic movie.

Doc, who is a widower, has his own personal demons: He’s an alcoholic. And he confides in Rusty that his wife died during childbirth. Based on his tone of voice, Doc is still haunted by his wife’s tragic death. As for Rusty, he tells his football team during an emotional moment that he can relate to them because he’s an orphan too.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie where Doc says in a voiceover about Rusty: “He knew that football would inevitably bring self-respect to the boys.” And there are plenty of “pep talk” scenes that are exactly what you would expect. As formulaic as this movie is, there’s still a level of suspense in the movie’s best game scene: the Texas state championship. Viewers who already know the game’s outcome can still be drawn in by the thrilling way that this game is filmed for the movie.

Rusty is portrayed by Wilson as an almost saintly mentor who never loses his temper, even when some of the boys on his team rudely insult him and each other. By contrast, Knight’s depiction of the loathsome Frank is almost a caricature of a villain. Out of all Mighty Mites, Walker (as Hardy), Monroe (as C.D.) and Lofland (as Snoggs) get the most screen time to showcase the characters’ personalities. All of the acting is believable, but sometimes hampered by corny dialogue.

“12 Mighty Orphans” was filmed on location in Texas, in the cities of Fort Worth, Weatherford and Cleburne. That authenticity goes a long way in this movie’s appeal, since so much of the film comes across as a made-for-TV movie. Is this movie going to be nominated for any awards? No, but it’s not a bad way to be entertained. And people don’t even have to be fans of American football to enjoy “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Sony Pictures Classics released “12 Mighty Orphans” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, with an expansion to more cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Still Here’ (2020), starring Johnny Whitworth, Maurice McRae and Zazie Beetz

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maurice McRae in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Still Here” (2020)

Directed by Vlad Feier

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Still Here” has a racially diverse cast (African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A journalist takes it upon himself to investigate the case of a missing 10-year-old girl because he thinks the police aren’t doing enough in the investigation.

Culture Audience: “Still Here” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable B-movies with mediocre acting and a lot of badly written scenes.

Johnny Whitworth and Leopold Manswell in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

The dramatic film “Still Here” desperately tries to look like it’s got a higher social conscience than the average B-movie, but the results are phony, awkward and downright dumb. “Still Here” also wants to have its cake and eat it too: It portrays the New York Police Department as racist and corrupt, but the movie’s entire concept is based on the over-used, racially condescending trope that black people are helpless until a “white savior” comes along to solve their problems.

Directed by Vlad Feier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Gutter), the entire movie reeks of being made by filmmakers who don’t know how to accurately depict contemporary New York City and the African Americans who live there. It looks like the filmmakers of “Still Here” have mostly gotten their stereotypical ideas from what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. And this inaccuracy is what often happens when people from certain communities are written and directed in a problematic way by people who don’t come from those communities.

The movie’s basic plot is that a working-class African American family is reeling from the mysterious disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in the family. The police don’t seem to care, but a crusading white journalist decides to do his own investigation, and he’s the only one who can get things done and save the day. It’s as simple-minded and formulaic as it sounds.

“Still Here” begins with distraught father Michael Watson (played by Maurice McRae) putting up missing-person flyers about his 10-year-old daughter Monique (played by Zariah Singletary) in the New York City neighborhood where they live. At this point in the story, Monique has been missing for eight days, and Michael is getting increasingly stressed-out because the police haven’t made any progress in the investigation.

Michael, who works as a mechanic, is also seen in a support group for parents of missing children. There’s a scene of him in a group meeting, where he’s clearly agitated. The movie has Michael’s voiceovers during the meeting, so people can hear his inner thoughts, such as “What am I doing here?” As some members of the support group drone on about their depressing situations, Michael can’t take it any more. He abruptly gets up in the middle of the meeting and announces, “This ain’t right,” before storming out.

While Michael is canvassing the neighborhood, looking for Monique and distributing the missing-person flyers, Michael’s wife Tiffany (played by Afton Williamson) has had an opposite but equally distressed reaction: She’s become so depressed that she can barely leave the apartment where she and Michael live with their teenage son Andre (played by Jared Kemp), who has stopped going to school because Monique’s disappearance has caused Andre to have panic attacks. Tiffany doesn’t do much in this movie, except cry near a candle-lit, living-room shrine that’s dedicated to Monique and plead with Michael not to lose his temper when he gets angry over how the investigation is being handled by authorities.

Because “Still Here” lazily throws in as many negative African American clichés as possible in the movie, the Watson family lives in public housing. Whether you want to call it “the projects” or “the ‘hood,” it’s still a ghetto stereotype. “Still Here” repeatedly uses the Watson family’s social class as a way to make these African Americans look as pitiful as possible, so that when the “savior” comes along, he can look even more like a noble do-gooder.

And who is the “hero” of the story who thinks he can solve this missing person’s case all by himself? It’s Christian Baker (played by Johnny Whitworth), a somewhat cocky journalist who works for the fictional New York City daily newspaper The Chronicle. When viewers first see Christian, he tells his editor boss Jerry Hoffman (played by Larry Pine) that he doesn’t want to cover a charity event because it’s not hard news.

Christian obviously thinks that easy puff pieces are beneath him and he’s bored with the assignments that he’s been getting lately. Jerry tells Christian: “You haven’t been delivering for too long. You’re walking a thin line here, sport.” But lo and behold, Jerry has an idea for an assignment that Christian would be willing to do.

Jerry tells Christian about the disappearance of Monique Watson: “The cops aren’t pursuing it. You know how it is: Poor black family in a poor black neighborhood … Cops aren’t interested. They don’t give a fuck. And why should they? They don’t get medals for that.”

Christian eagerly takes the assignment. And this is where “Still Here” really goes downhill, because the movie wants people think that even though Christian makes a lot of stupid mistakes, he’s still a fantastic investigator. In the real world, he would be considered grossly incompetent and lacking in basic common sense. It should also be noted that Christian, who likes to wear scarves and designer coats, is always dressed as if he’s about to have drinks at a trendy cocktail lounge, instead of going to some of the run-down seedy areas where he has to go during the course of his “investigation.”

There are so many things wrong with how the movie shows Christian doing his “investigating.” For starters, Christian wants to go to the Watson family home unannounced to talk to Monique’s parents, but he doesn’t know where they live. Instead of researching this information, like any good journalist would do (and the information would be very easy to find by using The Chronicle’s address-finding resources), he decides to go to the neighborhood where the Watson family lives, with the hope that someone can tell him which building is the one where the family resides. Christian walks around a cluster of housing projects, and then asks a group of four young African American men hanging around outside the buildings if they know where the Watson family lives.

The guy who appears to be the leader of the group is named Reggie Green (played by Leopold Manswell), and he can immediately tell that Christian isn’t street-smart at all and takes full advantage of Christian’s ignorance. Reggie basically tells Christian that the only way that he’ll tell Christian where the Watson family lives is if Christian pays him. Christian gives $100 to Reggie, just so Reggie can point to the building where the Watson family lives.

Christian goes to the building and looks at the mailboxes to find out which one is for the Watsons’ apartment. And because this is an apartment in “the ghetto,” of course the elevators don’t work, so Christian has to walk up to the fourth-floor apartment by using the stairs. His unannounced visit is a disaster.

Michael answers the door. Christian introduces himself and tells Michael that he’s from The Chronicle and wants to help with the investigation into Monique’s disappearance. (Christian doesn’t show any identification, by the way.) Michael gives this reply before slamming the door in Christian’s face: “You want to help? Then get the fuck out of here!”

After Christian gets this rude awakening that being a white journalist doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be welcomed with open arms in certain neighborhoods, he goes back outside and tries to get some more information from Reggie, who’s hanging out in the same place with his friends. Reggie has noticed that Christian is wearing an expensive watch, so it’s no surprise that Reggie tells Christian that he won’t reveal any more information until Christian gives Reggie the watch, which Christian reluctantly and foolishly does.

Reggie then tells Christian something that’s pure gossip and speculation: He says that a taxi driver who lives in the same cluster of buildings used to park in a certain area every day at a certain time of day, but the taxi driver wasn’t parked there on the day that Monique disappeared and the taxi driver hasn’t been seen since. Reggie says that he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

And what does Christian do with this speculation? He finds out the name of the taxi driver and tells his editor boss Jerry that this taxi driver is probably the “suspect” that the police have overlooked. It’s one of the movie’s many unrealistic moments, because the taxi driver isn’t a “suspect.” He’s not even a “person of interest,” because there’s no proof that this taxi driver had any contact with Monique.

Christian thinks that the only way for the police to jumpstart the investigation into Monique’s disappearance is if the police are shamed into it by a news report that says that the police overlooked a “suspect.” His irresponsible boss Jerry agrees. And so, the next day, The Chronicle runs a front-page article, written by Christian, with the headline “Taxi Driver, Yann Abellard, Overlooked by Investigators in Monique Watson’s Disappearance.” Christian is both smug and excited about this article.

This inflammatory and very unethical article, which could ruin an innocent man’s reputation, sets off a chain of events, during which “Still Here” tries to hammer over viewers’ heads the ideas that all New York City police officers are corrupt and/or racist and that Christian is the only journalist who can find out what happened to Monique. One of the movie’s disturbing scenes is when taxi driver Yann Abellard (played by Baboucarr Camara) is brought in for brutal questioning by the NYPD. He’s an African immigrant who’s scared out of his mind, and he vehemently proclaims that he’s innocent.

Although the interrogation methods are over-the-top, it’s one of the few times in the movie where there is some realism. The scene shows what can happen when someone is brought in for questioning by police and that person doesn’t know enough about their rights to ask for a lawyer, which (by American law) would put a stop to the questioning. At various times in the movie, there are other people who fall under suspicion about Monique’s disappearance, including her brother Andre and a neighbor in his 20s named Marcus Mitchell (played by Justin A. Davis), who lives on the same floor as the Watson family.

Michael is highly suspicious of Christian’s motives for getting involved in the investigation, because he thinks that Christian just wants to exploit the family’s pain and not help them. However, Michael’s wife Tiffany is more willing to listen to what Christian has to say. Christian eventually wins over the family’s trust when he tells them that he doesn’t like how the NYPD has been handling the case and he can do a better job than the police have been doing in investigating Monique’s disappearance.

As for the corrupt and racist NYPD cops, there’s a scene where the case’s chief investigator Captain Hardwick (played by Steven Hauck) tells a white subordinate cop what he thinks about the media attention over the case: “I’m not losing my job because some black little bitch got lost on the way home.” Captain Hardwick essentially tells his underlings to find and arrest a suspect, even if there’s no real evidence against that person.

The two subordinates who’ve been tasked with most of the investigation are black cop Anthony Evans (played by Danny Johnson) and white cop Greg Spaulding (played by Jeremy Holm), who have very different views on how they should handle the case. Anthony has no problems carrying out their boss’ orders to find and arrest a suspect, regardless if there’s no evidence. Greg is more reluctant, and he feels guilty about possibly targeting someone who might be innocent.

It’s implied that Anthony is willing to go as far as frame someone for the crime. And the fact that it will probably be a fellow African American doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Ain’t no shame in the game,” Anthony tells Greg, in one of the movie’s many cringeworthy lines. It speaks volumes that the filmmakers wanted to make the African American cop a bigger villain than his white colleague.

Zazie Beetz shares top billing in this movie, probably because she has a red-hot career right now, but her headlining status for this movie is misleading. Her fans and other viewers should be warned that Beetz only has one scene in “Still Here,” which has her on screen for about five minutes. She plays Keysha, an ex-girlfriend of Marcus. This movie can’t get enough of pointing out the cultural differences that Christian experiences as a white “fish out of water” in a predominantly African American “ghetto.” There’s a scene where Reggie tells Christian that Keysha might have some information, and Christian has trouble pronouncing her name.

The actors in this movie don’t do anything particularly outstanding. McCrae is given a few scenes where he convincingly expresses anguish as the father of a missing child whom the police don’t seem to care about, while Wentworth doesn’t seem to have a lot emotionally invested in his drab role as Christian. The movie shows almost nothing about what kind of person Christian is when he’s not working, except a random scene of him dancing suggestively with a woman at a nightclub. This nightclub scene’s only purpose is to establish that Christian is sexually interested in women, so that viewers know that Christian is the prototypical good-looking, straight white male who usually gets to be the hero in movies like this one.

“Still Here” is not the worst movie you could ever see. It’s just an incredibly lazy and culturally tone-deaf film that offers nothing that’s impressively creative. In the real world of New York City newspaper journalism, a dolt like Christian wouldn’t last on a crime beat, let alone be given front-page assignments, because he’s just so bungling and willfully ignorant of how crime investigations work. The next time that “Still Here” director Feier makes a movie, let’s hope he makes an attempt to tell the story in a more authentic way.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Still Here” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.