The Mighty Macs: Film Review

A feel-good sports film with its obligatory inspirational characters, smug adversaries, insurmountable obstacles and triumph against all odds.

Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton and Ellen Burstyn star in a feel-good story a team that came out of nowhere to win the first women college basketball championship.

True-life sports stories come to the screen so frequently these days that one can only wish filmmakers would find a way to resist the stale formula nearly everyone slavishly follows. Winning on the field is served up as a metaphor for everything from race relations to family values. In real life, of course, guys who take performance-enhancement drugs win huge salaries, while teams who play dirty often win. But by selecting “miracle” games or seasons, filmmakers insist otherwise, positing moral ideals in feel-good stories about athletic events that are the exception rather than the rule.

The Mighty Macs tells such a story. The movie does say a lot about female athletes and the changing role of women in American society, but in aggressively pursuing the formula, writer-director-producer Tim Chambers is prone to exaggeration and a moralizing tone. The film, getting a release two years after its debut at the Heartland Film Festival, will probably have a short theatrical career. The story might have worked better as a telefilm.

The 1971-72 basketball team from the obscure all-girls Catholic school of Immaculata College in Philadelphia — the school is now Immaculata University and is coed -- came literally out of nowhere to win the first women college basketball championship. The team was actually seeded 15th in a 16-team field.

There is no doubt that their coach, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Cathy Rush (played by Carla Gugino), whipped an unheralded team into shape by training them in tactics used in the male game. But given the number of players who went on to considerable careers as players and coaches in college and the WNBA, these women could hardly have been the talentless, all-thumbs athletes shown in the movie’s early scenes.

But the Bad News Bears formula demands that no one can play the game until a hero-coach arrives on the scene. Rush’s job interview with the school’s Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) plays almost like a satire of said formula. First of all, she learns there may not be enough eager girls to field a team. Then that no one else has even applied for the job. Her pay will be $450 -- for the entire season. Finally, Mother St. John hands her the school’s last basketball. “Don’t lose it,” she admonishes.

Oh, one more thing -- the gym burned down a few months back.

The school is also is dire financial shape so when the Monsignor (Malachy McCourt) moans that it will take “an act of God to save the school,” you know that is exactly what’s coming.

The film portrays everyone as a doubter. The Monsignor, Mother Superior, the girls themselves and even Cathy’s own husband, Ed (David Boreanaz), an NBA ref, frown about everything she does.

But her unorthodox training methods -- in a water-filled tunnel at night and, briefly, against boys until Mother Superior puts a stop to that -- gain results. The team starts to win games and the excited nuns turn out to watch.

No doubt securing life rights to the team’s real athletes was a legal hurtle the production was unable or unwilling to take on so Chambers’ screenplay resorts to fictional stories that cover the social and athletic challenges of three key players (played by Katie Hayek, Meghan Sabia and Kim Blair) as well as an assistant coach, Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), who has doubts about her vows.

Of course, the husband, Mother Superior and players all come around eventually to believe in the team. And the film makes its points about feminism and about a heroine who, in her own words, is “a lady not ready to assume her role in society.”

The action on the courts in aging gyms is well staged with the actor-athletes displaying considerable skill once the filmmaker allows them to do so. Music cues tend to forecast many plays, however, and the editing in the playoff’s final game feels strangely rushed without a build-up to an emotional payoff.

Gugino is fine in the lead role, although through no fault of her own, a halo shines too brightly over her head. Burstyn is pretty one-note until late in the film when she is allowed a smile or two. Shelton perhaps comes off as the most interesting character so the film might have profited from a stronger focus on her particular dilemma.

Opens: Oct. 21 (Freestyle)
Production companies: Quaker Media
Cast: Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton, Ellen Burstyn, Katie Hayek, Meghan Sabia, Kim Blair, Malachy McCourt
Director-screenwriter-producer: Tim Chambers
Executive producers: Pat Croce, Vince Curran
Director of photography: Chuck Cohen
Production designer: Tim Galvin
Music: William Ross
Costume designer: Teresa Binder Westby
Editor: M. Scott Smith
G rating, 98 minutes