There's something irresistible about the underdog's plight, something glorious about a "Cinderella story" in sports. "The Mighty Macs" is a movie that taps into that, telling us of the glory days of Immaculata College's women's basketball team. This tiny Catholic school for women dominated the sport at a turning point in history, and this plucky, old-fashioned sports drama sets the scene and tells the tale with a lot of heart and a dash of wit.
Carla Gugino plays Cathy Rush, the only candidate to apply for the job of coaching the team at the then-struggling school. Her salary is a pittance, the out-of-style uniforms are dresses better suited to field hockey, and the gym just burned down. The Reverend Mother (Ellen Burstyn) in charge of the place takes just enough time between urgent meetings with the board, which is trying to figure out how to keep the college open, to lecture Rush on just how little money there is: "If we didn't have to struggle, we could never harvest the glory."
It's 1971, and the bra-burning corner of the women's movement hasn't impacted this suburban Philadelphia school. When Coach Rush nags her players to dive for the ball, the response she gets is "This is soooooo unladylike." She has to convince them that they have to play like the boys to win and set their sights higher than that "Mrs." degree so many of them have as their goal.
"If you defend, it shows you care," Rush teaches. She has them practice passing wearing oven mitts, sends them scampering through culverts and wears them out.
And from Reverend Mother, and Rush's assistant coach/nun (Marley Shelton), she absorbs a little of the school's biblical teaching, too.
"As you think so shall you be Be not afraid."
As Immaculata's Mighty Macs struggle, then start to succeed, she misses the obvious biblical reference -- David vs. Goliath. They're always playing bigger schools, though few at the time took women's sports seriously.
Tim Chambers' film, completed in 2009 and only now reaching theaters, is subtle in the ways it suggests the revolution that this team was a part of. Women dunk now. They can aspire to become pro basketball players. A whole society was changing and this little school was pivotal in that. When a player cracks about her coach, "She already has a husband. Why would she want to work?" it's a reminder of how far the country's come, kids.
Chambers finds the easy laughs in a tale of life-among-nuns. None of the women cast as players have big enough roles to stand out -- the poor girl who wears overalls, the girl plotting her engagement, etc. David Boreanaz has the underdeveloped role of Rush's NBA referee-husband. But Gugino and Shelton click (they have played far less family-friendly characters together in the past), and Burstyn classes up the joint with her Oscar-winning presence.
"The Mighty Macs" don't go anywhere we don't expect them to, and a better-budgeted movie would have made more of their era and the revolution they helped bring about. But for families with girls, this movie is a great history lesson about how things were, set against a message girls then and girls now can never hear too often -- "have the courage to follow your dreams."
THE MIGHTY MACS
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Ellen Burstyn, Marley Shelton
DIRECTOR: Tim Chambers
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: The Cinderella story of the trailblazing 1971 women's basketball team at Immaculata College.