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: ‘The Etruscan Smile,’ starring Brian Cox, Rosanna Arquette, JJ Feild and Thora Birch

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Thora Birch, Brian Cox and JJ Feild in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

“The Estruscan Smile”

Directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu

Culture Representation: Set in San Francisco and Scotland’s Valasay, Isle of Lewis, the family drama “The Etruscan Smile” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish ferry operator goes to San Francisco to seek medical treatment and reunites with his estranged son, who has started his own family.

Culture Audience: “The Etruscan Smile” will appeal primarily to fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as people who like sentimental dramas about emotional subjects, such as death and family.

Rosanna Arquette and Brian Cox in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

If you’re not in the mood for a tearjerking drama about a dying man who reunites with his estranged son, then “The Etruscan Smile” is not going to be for you. But if you want to see a well-acted story that is elevated by authentic performances by the cast, particularly star Brian Cox, then “The Etruscan Smile” is worth watching. Just make sure you have plenty of tissues nearby if you’re someone who cries during movies.

Based on the 1985 novel “The Etruscan Smile” by José Luis Sampedro, the movie version makes some location and cultural changes from the book. “The Etruscan Smile” book, which is set in Italy, is about a dying farmer who reluctantly seeks medical treatment in Milan, stays with his estranged son, and finds it difficult to adjust to city living, but his attitude toward life changes as he bonds with his grandson. The movie has a similar premise, but the central character is a 75-year-old Scottish ferry operator named Rory MacNeil, who travels from Scotland to San Francisco to get medical treatment.

“The Etruscan Smile” was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way,” which isn’t a particularly good renaming of the film because it’s so vague. Even if people have never heard of “The Estruscan Smile” book, at least it’s explained in the movie why the story has this title, which carries more emotional resonance than a title like “Rory’s Way.”

The beginning of the film takes place in Rory’s hometown of Valasay, Isle of Lewis in Scotland, where he’s a widowed former carpenter who lives alone on Hebridean Island. Rory starts his mornings by skinny-dipping in Kyles of Valasay. He spends his work days as a ferry operator for tourists, and at night he’s usually drinking in local pubs. In addition to his drinking problem, Rory can be gruff, crude and stubborn. He has the lifestyle of someone who likes to live alone and is set in his ways.

While at hanging out at a pub one night, Rory gets in an argument with Alistair Campbell (played by Clive Russell), a local man he’s been feuding with for years. Campbell shouts to the pub patrons that he’ll pay for everyone’s drinks to celebrate that Rory is dying. Rory then insults Campbell, who eventually backs off. As viewers find out later in the movie, the feud involves a bizarre contest between the two men where they’ve decided that the “winner” is whoever outlives the other.

Viewers soon see that Rory does have a serious medical condition, to the point where he’s collapsed in his home. The only person who’s been treating him is a local veterinarian, who tells Rory that he can no longer give him medicine that’s meant for animals, and he urges Rory to see a doctor who treats humans.

And apparently, since there are no doctors in Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom that Rory wants to see, he travels all the way to San Francisco to get medical treatment, even though as a visitor from the U.K., he wouldn’t have health insurance in United States. This is the only part of the story that doesn’t make much sense. However, there are a few explanations that clear up this apparent plot hole.

First, it’s pretty obvious that since the story revolves around Rory reuniting with his estranged son, Rory (who probably knows that he’s dying, but is afraid to get the official diagnosis) is going on the trip so that he can stay with his son and get to know his son and his family better. Secondly, the question that viewers might have about how Rory is going to pay for his medical treatment is answered when Rory arrives in San Francisco, is tensely greeted at the airport by his estranged son Ian (played by JJ Feild), and taken to Ian’s high-rise luxury condo in San Francisco: Ian has married into a wealthy family.

Ian, who is Rory’s only child, went to college for biochemistry, but his chosen profession is as a chef whose specialty is molecular gastronomy. He works as a sous chef at an upscale restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, who’s not named in the movie. Ian’s supportive wife Emily (played by Thora Birch) used to work at a hospital but has launched her own firm, which is in the start-up stage. She works from home and has a nanny named Frida (played by Sandra Santiago), but Emily also has to travel a lot for her business. Emily’s father has the kind of money to afford box seats at Candlestick Park for San Francisco Giants games, as Ian mentions to Rory.

It’s obvious from Rory and Ian’s first moments together, after not seeing each other for 15 years, that the reunion is going to be tense. Rory tells Ian that he’s glad to see him, while Ian only tersely nods and says nothing. While driving from the airport, Rory gives Ian a small wooden toy horse that Rory hand-carved himself, and says that it’s a gift for Ian’s infant child Jamie. Unfortunately, Rory calls Jamie a “she” when Jamie is actually a boy. Ian doesn’t even try to hide his disgust that Rory couldn’t be bothered to remember the gender of his only grandchild. (The adorable and expressive baby Jamie in the movie is played by twins Oliver Aero Kappo Epps and Elliot Echo Boom Epps.)

There are other reasons, explained in different parts during the movie, for why Ian and his father have been estranged. After Jamie was born, Rory never bothered to contact Ian and Emily—not even to send a card. It’s also hinted in the movie that because of Rory’s conservative viewpoints on how men and women should be, Rory never really thought of Ian as a “man’s man” and was probably disappointed in Ian’s career choice. It seems like Rory expected Ian to gave a more “manly” profession that requires physical strength.

Rory also has some resentment toward Ian, because he think Ian “abandoned” his Scottish roots by going away to America to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Ian’s late mother is briefly mentioned a few times in the movie. It’s implied that she was probably a long-suffering wife, considering Ian’s stubborn and sexist ways of thinking. And because Rory was most likely the more difficult partner in the marriage, Ian is angry with his father about that too.

Because Emily’s father has paid for the condo where Ian and Emily live, Rory makes it known that he doesn’t respect Ian for not being the family breadwinner and for taking financial handouts from Ian’s father-in-law. Rory also isn’t comfortable with Emily being the more dominant partner in the marriage, as he sarcastically remarks to Ian that Emily is the one who’s wearing the pants in the family.

While Rory is staying with Ian and Emily, he tells them the real reason for the visit: He needs to get an exam for some medical issues. Emily is understanding, but it’s another reason for Ian to get upset with Rory, because Ian doesn’t like that Rory wasn’t forthcoming about all of the reasons for the visit. Meanwhile, Rory tries to adjust to living in a big city and using modern technology. And he also has to adjust to being a grandfather.

When he’s alone with Jamie, who starts crying as babies do, he gruffly tells the child, “Man up!” It’s obvious that Rory doesn’t really know much about taking care of a baby, because he comes from the “old school” way of thinking that it’s a woman’s job to do that. But over time, Rory bonds with Jamie and looks forward to babysitting him.

One day, Rory takes Jamie out for a stroll for a couple of hours, but he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s leaving and when he’s coming back. Viewers can see that it’s entirely in Rory’s character to do something this irresponsible because he’s so used to living alone and not having to answer to anyone. When he returns with the baby to Ian and Emily’s home, Ian is furious, and Emily is worried but actually apologizes to Rory instead of scolding him. Emily says that she understands how Rory might be overwhelmed by his new surroundings.

After coming back from his first doctor’s appointment in San Francisco, Rory finds a tuxedo handing in his closet and a note attached to get dressed in the tuxedo and a car will pick him for for an event. The event is a black-tie gala at a museum, and Rory arrives only wearing the top of the tuxedo and a traditional Scottish kilt on the bottom. Ian is part of the culinary team that’s prepared the food at the event, which was organized by Emily.

It’s at this soiree that Rory meets Emily’s widowed father Frank (played by Treat Williams) for the first time. Frank makes a grand gesture in front of Ian, Emily and Rory, by telling Ian that he’s put a down payment on new restaurant for him, because he wants Ian to run his own restaurant. Ian is surprised and grateful, but Rory is repulsed that Ian has had this opportunity handed to him instead of working for it. Rory thinks it’s emasculating for Ian to be so reliant on Frank. Rory comments in Scottish Gaelic as he walks off, “The best way to tame your horse is to shoot his balls off.”

While wandering around the museum by himself, Rory sees an Etruscan sculpture of a smiling couple in a loving embrace. A museum employee explains to Rory that the couple is actually dead but still able to smile. The woman, whom Rory later finds out is named Claudia (played by Rosanna Arquette), chats with Rory some more, but she’s put off by his crude way of flirting with her. He tells her that she looks natural, unlike the women at the gala with the “big, fake tits.” Still, how Rory and Claudia meet is the kind of “meet cute” moment that you can immediately tell will lead to Rory and Claudia to begin dating each other.

Shortly after attending the party, Rory gets a call from Scotland that thrills him to bits: He’s found out that his enemy Campbell is dying from liver failure and doesn’t have much longer to live. It’s a moment of gloating that could be considered karma when Rory goes for another hospital visit, and this time, he gets bad news from physician Dr. Weiss (played by Tim Matheson): Rory has Stage 4 prostate cancer. Dr. Weiss refuses to tell him at first how many months Rory has to live, although the doctor relents much later in the story and tells Rory how much time he probably has left.

Rory reacts to the diagnosis with denial and anger. He calls Dr. Weiss a “good for nothing.” And when he tells Ian the news, he snaps, “I’m fine!” when Ian expresses concern. He also tells Ian that Dr. Weiss is an “idiot” and a “hack.”

It isn’t long before Rory is back at the museum—this time during the day as a visitor. He has Jamie in a baby stroller with him, but Rory gets distracted when a young woman in the museum pickpockets him, and he unsuccessfully chases after her, leaving Jamie and the baby stroller behind. When Rory frantically returns to where he left Jamie in the stroller, he sees Claudia holding the baby. It’s such an “only in a movie” moment—but then again, stranger coincidences have happened in real life.

While Rory is getting reacquainted with Claudia, a man standing nearby overhears Rory speaking in Gaelic and tells Rory that a local university is doing research on endangered languages and would love to hire Rory for his knowledge of Gaelic. Rory says he doesn’t need the money but he would participate in the research if Claudia accompanies him to the first session. Claudia is won over by Rory’s charming side, and they begin to date each other. It’s during the research sessions led by a professor (played by Peter Coyote, whose character in the movie doesn’t have a name) that Rory starts to feel valued as a person and completely accepted for who is he is, which affects his newfound appreciation of life.

Cox is one of those character actors who’s usually the best performer in whatever project he’s involved with (and he’s finally getting major acclaim with HBO’s “Succession”), so it’s not much of a surprise if you’ve seen his work that he gives another gem of a performance. Rory MacNeil can be unpleasant, but Cox infuses the performance with a lot of humanity that shows how tender Rory is underneath all of his blustery toughness.

The supporting actors also do a very good job with their roles. A particular standout is Feild, who goes through a wide range of emotions as Ian, a man who is struggling with his identity and confidence issues because he’s always been in a family where other people have dominated. During the course of the movie, viewers see that Ian realize that he needs to define his own happiness instead of letting others dictate it for him.

“The Etruscan Smile’s” screenplay (written by Michael McGowan, Michal Lali Kagan and Sarah Bellwood) can occasionally have hokey dialogue, but the actors improve these moments of triteness by their genuine portrayal of human emotions. All of the characters in the film are entirely believable, even though some of the words in the script are overly maudlin.

The pacing and tone of the movie (directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu) are at times a little too slow and quiet for some people’s tastes, but the direction is solid. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is quite gorgeous at times, especially in the aerial shots of San Francisco and Scotland.

“The Etruscan Smile” (the first movie produced by Oscar winner Arthur Cohn since 2012’s “Russendisko”) isn’t a movie about a big, loud dysfunctional family. Most of the turmoil shown in “The Etruscan Smile” is internalized by the characters, but their true feelings come out in facial expressions and other body language, rather than non-stop melodrama. The last third of the movie is the best part, so the slower parts of the film are worth getting through in order to see how the movie ends. (The closing shot in the last scene is especially poignant.)

“The Etruscan Smile” isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it’s a compelling character study of how one man deals with a terminal illness and how he tries to right some of the wrongs in his life. At the very least, the movie can remind people what legacies they want to leave behind long after they’re gone and to not take loved ones for granted.

Lightyear Entertainment released “The Etruscan Smile” in select cinemas in New York state and New Jersey on March 13, 2020. MVD Entertainment will release “The Etruscan Smile” on VOD, EST, DVD and Blu-ray on June 16, 2020. The film was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way.”

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