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: ‘Mighty Oak,’ starring Janel Parrish, Tommy Ragen, Carlos PenaVega, Alexa PenaVega, Levi Dylan and Raven-Symoné

July 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Janel Parrish, Carlos PenaVega, Ben Milliken, Tommy Ragen and Nana Ghana in “Mighty Oak” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment)

“Mighty Oak” 

Directed by Sean McNamara

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Diego and briefly in Los Angeles and Minnesota, the drama “Mighty Oak” has a racially diverse cast (white, black, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A manager of an up-and-coming rock band is convinced that a guitar whiz kid is the reincarnation of her dead musician brother, who used to be in the band, but everyone around her is skeptical of that belief.

Culture Audience: “Mighty Oak” will appeal primarily to people who like sappy dramas and have low expectations for realistic storytelling.

Nana Ghana, Levi Dylan and Carlos PenaVega in “Mighty Oak” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment)

The music-oriented drama “Mighty Oak” takes some heavy issues, such as drug addiction and mental illness, and throws them into an overly saccharine story that’s supposed to be uplifting but ends up being pandering and grossly unrealistic. Directed by Sean McNamara and written by Matt R. Allen, “Mighty Oak” might be enjoyable to children who are too young to know how dumb the plot twist is toward the end of the movie. But for adults who know better, this movie is downright cringeworthy in how it uses tragic deaths to further its manipulative agenda of trying to make audiences adore the kid who’s the movie’s title character.

In the beginning of “Mighty Oak,” band manager/agent Gina Jackson (played by Janel Parrish) is frantically knocking on the door of a nightclub dressing room occupied by her brother Vaughn (played by Levi Dylan), right before Vaughn’s pop-rock band Army of Love is supposed to take the stage. Vaughn is the group’s lead singer, lead guitarist and chief songwriter. He’s portrayed as one of those “undiscovered genius” types who fills up notebooks with his ideas and goes on writing binges whenever inspiration hits him.

And apparently, Vaughn has decided to write a song in the dressing room, making his bandmates and Gina wait for him to be ready to go on stage. Gina listens to the song and reacts as if she thinks it should be a No. 1 hit, even though it’s really a generic and forgettable song written for generic and forgettable movies like this one. The actor who plays Vaughn is the real-life grandson of Bob Dylan and son of The Wallflowers leader Jakob Dylan. In “Mighty Oak,” the filmmakers have stuck Levi Dylan in an ill-fitting obvious wig and have made him perform hack tunes that his legendary grandfather Bob wouldn’t be caught dead performing.

The other members of Army of Love are rhythm guitarist Pedro (played by Carlos PenaVega), Gina’s ex-boyfriend who’s still in love with her; bass player Alex (played by Nana Ghana), a sarcastic cynic who spends about half of her screen time rolling her eyes in annoyance; and drummer Darby (played by Ben Milliken), a goofy Brit who won’t be winning any intelligence awards anytime soon.

Gina and Vaughn are closer than most siblings are because they’ve been through a lot together. Vaughn and Gina became orphans when they were children, and they had traumatic experiences in the foster-care system. Pedro is very jealous and insecure about all the attention that Gina pays to Vaughn. But Gina’s fixation on Vaughn in the beginning of the story is nothing compared to the creepy obsession for her brother that she shows later in the story.

Army of Love has built up a following in the San Diego music scene (the group is based in the San Diego neighborhood of Ocean Beach) and has released a few independent albums, but the group hasn’t hit the big time. One day, Gina tells the band some exciting news: Army of Love has been selected as the opening act for Arcade Fire’s upcoming three concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

However, their excitement is short-lived when tragedy strikes: While driving on a freeway on the way back from one of the Arcade Fire concerts, the van carrying the band and Gina (and driven by Darby) gets hit in a head-on collision from a car driving the wrong way. Vaughn is killed instantly in the car wreck, while the other people in the van survive.

The movie then fast-forwards 10 years later. Gina is a drunk and a gambling addict who’s having a hard time paying her bills. Pedro works as a waiter at a local coffee shop/diner called Lestat’s, and he gives private guitar lessons as a way to make extra money. Alex works as a waitress at another local eatery—and she really hates her job, based on the miserable attitude and annoyed eye rolls she gives to a difficult teenager (played by Emma Ragen) who’s a regular customer. Darby works at a music store where he pathetically tries to get people to buy old Army of Love albums.

Lestat’s owner Dwayne “DB” Biggs (played by Rodney Hicks) owns the building where the coffee shop is located. The building’s top floor has apartments for rent. One of the apartments has recently been rented to a widow named Valerie Scoggins (played by Alexa PenaVega, who is Carlos PenaVega’s wife in real life) and her 10-year-old son Oak Scoggins (played by Tommy Ragen, in his feature-film debut).

Valerie, who has burn scars on her face and other parts of her body, is a military veteran who’s become an opioid addict. Therefore, she spends most of her days and nights in bed and zonked out in a drug-induced haze while surrounded by pill bottles and hypodermic needles. Oak has learned to become self-sufficient, and he’s essentially his mother’s nurse maid, since he serves her meals in bed and he seems to be the one responsible for cleaning their home.

At school, Oak has one close friend—Emma Biggs (played by Gianna Harris)—who is DB’s daughter. Emma is a loyal and protective pal to Oak. For example, when a couple of bullies at school tease Oak and steal his journal while they’re in the schoolyard, Emma defends Oak and gets the bullies to back off of him.

One day, DB mentions to Pedro that he let Oak borrow Vaughn’s best-loved guitar because the kid showed an interest in playing it. Pedro is a little annoyed that DB gave this guitar to Oak instead of to Pedro, but he’s curious to see if Oak (whom he hasn’t met yet) has any talent. Meanwhile, Pedro calls Gina to tell her that Vaughn’s beloved guitar is now in the temporary possession of a kid they’ve never met.

Gina is very upset by the news, not just because the guitar has sentimental value to her but also because the guitar is worth $3,000, and she was going to sell it to pay off some of her debts. Here’s a plot hole that’s never really explained in the film: What the hell was DB doing with Vaughn’s guitar? As Vaughn’s only living heir, shouldn’t Gina have been the one to own the guitar after he died? It’s shown later in the movie that Gina kept all of Vaughn’s possessions like a hoarder, so why didn’t she have that guitar?

At any rate, Gina wants to get the guitar, so she and Pedro make plans to meet up and try to figure out how to retrieve the guitar without hurting Oak’s feelings. Gina hasn’t seen the surviving members of Army of Love in several years, so Pedro is kind of thrilled to see Gina again. However, to Pedro’s disappointment, Gina makes it clear that she has no interest in dating him again.

When Pedro and Gina inevitably see Oak play Vaughn’s guitar, they are awed by the kid’s natural talent. (Tommy Ragen does his own guitar playing and singing in the movie.) Pedro offers to teach Oak some guitar lessons (with Army of Love songs as part of the repertoire, of course), while Gina notices that Oak’s guitar playing and other mannerisms are strikingly similar to what her dead brother Vaughn used to have.

Gina is even more convinced that Oak is the reincarnation of her brother when she sees Oak’s journal and finds illustrations that are exactly like what Vaughn used to have in his own journal. Even though Gina is spooked by these similarities, she sees an opportunity to get Army of Love back together and try to resurrect the band’s career.

Pedro is the first person she tells about her belief that Oak is the reincarnation of Vaughn. He’s very skeptical because of Gina’s troubled past: She’s a recovering drug addict, and she spent time in a psychiatric facility after Vaughn’s death. Gina has also attempted suicide at least once.

But he goes along with Gina’s plan to reunite Army of Love, with Oak as the band’s new lead singer/songwriter. When Alex and Darby find out that a 10-year-old is the new band leader, they’re less-than-thrilled until they hear Oak sing and play. However, everyone except for Gina thinks it’s kind of crazy to think that Oak is the reincarnation of Vaughn.

After Oak does a few rehearsals with the band, Gina and Pedro meet with Oak’s mother Valerie to ask her permission to let him be in Army of Love. Even in her drug-addled state of mind, she’s protective of Oak and doesn’t want him to be exploited. But since she’s a drug addict who’s always looking for more money, Valerie also wants to know how much Oak will be paid for his work.

Gina and Pedro admit that Army of Love isn’t making any money at the moment, but when they do start to make money, Oak will get his fair share. Valerie negotiates for Oak to get paid the same amount as Pedro. And then they all give handshakes over it, without any written contracts or even talk of consulting with attorneys first.

As dumb as this business “deal” is, it’s actually not too far off from how a lot of naïve people get ripped off in showbiz. What’s actually really stupid about the movie is what happens in the last third of the story. In order to believe the ludicrous plot twist (which won’t be revealed in this review), you’d have to believe that Gina, who’s so obsessed with Vaughn and how he died, didn’t care to find out anything else about the car accident that killed her brother.

The original music in “Mighty Oak” (many of the songs were co-written by Tommy Ragen) is middling and trite. Despite the filmmakers’ efforts to make Army of Love look like a “cool” band, it just comes across as a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel version of a band: A bunch of Hollywood actors with a newcomer kid actor trying to look like they’re in a believable rock band. Putting a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt on the kid doesn’t make the band any more authentic-looking.

And speaking of Disney Channel, former “That’s So Raven” star Raven-Symoné has a small supporting role as Taylor Lazlo, a friend of Gina’s who is a music critic at the San Diego Reader. Taylor’s San Diego Reader review of an Army of Love show with Oak as the lead singer will make AC/DC fans throw up a little in their mouths: She compares Oak fronting the band as better than how Brian Johnson replaced the late Bon Scott as the singer of AC/DC. Yes, the screenplay for this movie really is that bad.

Despite some of these real-life rock references in “Mighty Oak,” the movie is not realistic in many ways. The movie foolishly never mentions how Oak’s age is a real hindrance to the band. In real life, adults in a rock band wouldn’t want the credibility problems and liability issues of having a 10-year-old front the band. Getting band insurance would be a major hassle, for starters.

And a boy whose voice hasn’t even reached puberty cannot be believable when singing songs about romantic love. Therefore, a band with a very underage kid as a lead singer has to avoid doing any songs that are “adult” in nature, which makes Army of Love a novelty kiddie group with no rock’n’roll credibility.

The kid also wouldn’t be able to go into places where the minimum age requirement is 18 or 21, thereby greatly reducing the number of gigs that the band can get, since Army of Love is still at the level of performing in nightclubs. And unless the kid drops out of school, there’s no way that a child could be able to fulfill the time commitment it takes to be a professional musician who tours and records music.

Here’s an example of how out-of-touch the “Mighty Oak” filmmakers are with youth culture: In one scene, before the members of Army of Love go on stage, Gina chants the band’s acronym as a rallying cry: “AOL! AOL!” What? Not only could this acronym be confused with the AOL Internet service, but apparently the filmmakers aren’t aware that AOL hasn’t been cool since the 1990s.

“Mighty Oak” isn’t completely terrible. Some of the actors are better than others. The scenes between Gina and Pedro are the standouts because Parrish and Carlos PenaVega make these scenes believable. And there’s a somewhat funny recurring joke with one of Pedro’s untalented guitar students named Tristan (played by Thomas Kasp), who keeps popping up in his desperation to become a rock star too.

As for Tommy Ragen, it’s obvious that “Mighty Oak” is his first movie, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in his acting. In some scenes, he’s too melodramatic, while in other scenes, he’s too wooden. It’s clear that he needed better direction to overcome some of this uneven acting.

Several times in the movie, Oak does this gesture of placing his hand over his heart when he’s having a very emotional moment. It’s the filmmakers’ blatant attempt to make these moments into tearjerker scenes, and it just comes across as too slick and calculating for its own good.

“Mighty Oak” would have been a much more interesting movie if it hadn’t gone down such a predictable and boring path by the end of the film. If you want to see a great movie about an underage child prodigy from the San Diego area who experiences the lifestyle of a rock band, then watch “Almost Famous” instead.

Paramount Home Entertainment released “Mighty Oak” on digital on July 7, 2020.

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