(This review was originally published on October 21, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
Tim Chambers didn’t seem concerned about much other than preserving a piece of sports history when he wrote and directed “The Mighty Macs”, a film that endured four years of adversity, three of which involved seeking distribution after its completion. Along with co-producing partners Pat Croce and Vince Curran of Quaker Media, Chambers was finally able to get the film released without compromising its integrity.
The film is based on the true story of the 1971-72 basketball season at Immaculata, an all girls Catholic college of less than 500 students that was led to the first women’s collegiate title by coach Cathy Rush. A newlywed and ex-ball player at nearby West Chester University, Rush (Carla Gugino) finds herself at odds with Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn), who hires her but has no intention of directing any of the schools limited funds toward the athletic program. In addition, the first-time coach can barely fill out the team roster and even has to find her own gym since the facilities on campus have recently burned down – all for a meager $450 for the season.
Chambers (who also produces) creates a safe, if not slightly lackluster underdog story that competently sticks to the basic structure of Immaculata’s improbable rise to stardom as the Mighty Macs. Rush is introduced as a determined young woman who is well beyond what society expects of her in that era, though she is barely older than some of the girls she’s coaching (the real Rush was only 23 at the time). Her husband Ed (David Boreanaz, “Bones”) is an NBA referee who is anxious to start a family and seems less than supportive of her job at first, which she has taken as an easy way to stay connected to basketball. Even Mother Superior’s expectations of Cathy are as limited as the schools provision for the athletic program, which consists of one tattered, deflated ball.
In a role that seems embellished at times and downplayed at others, Gugino portrays the coach as both a family-friendly motivator and a force to be reckoned with, relying on the audience’s acceptance of the typical conventions and cliches to remain believable. The film develops on a bit of a fairy tale level that keeps its mood slightly elevated and succeeds in maintaining its wholesome values. But “The Mighty Macs” sometimes struggles to be serious with the duality of its content, touching on some underlying adult themes that it can’t follow up on logically within the constraints of its G Rating. This makes the world outside of the basketball court seem a bit like a fantasy land, and the pep talks are undoubtedly corny. Still, the film manages to generate plenty of energy where it counts, especially if its goal is relating to kids.
As Rush develops relationships with the players and gains the respect of the nuns, she befriends and recruits assistant coach Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a spry, street smart soul who was once part of the rat race before turning to the faith. The team soon find themselves in contention with bigger schools, including Rush’s alma mater and ex-coach at West Chester. Along the way are the usual montages, loads of ‘We Are #1’ pins that make their way around town, and the usual buzzwords that you hear in locker room speeches. But if the many feel good moments come across like “Hoosiers” put through a strainer, keep in mind the film’s intentions and enjoy its enthusiasm.
Though we never really get to know the players, with the exception of Trish Sharkey (Katie Hayek), a character based on the real life Theresa Shank Grentz and Lizanne Caufield (Kim Blair), the team serves as a fitting symbol of the real Mighty Macs and their achievements as they went on to win three straight titles. The team’s campus trotting slightly-fictionalized adventures are the focus, as the film skirts the subject of feminism in the early seventies with a few exceptions(in a couple instances coming dangerously close to parody), and draws from movies like “Miracle”,”The Karate Kid”, and even “Kicking and Screaming” if stirred into a quirky, lighthearted cocktail.
In the end, “The Mighty Macs” is all about wholesome family entertainment. It’s a plucky film and relevant piece of sports history that is outwardly predictable fun, whether you already know the story or not, and where it risks underwhelming some of its audience in originality it makes up for in spirit.
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