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The Mighty Macs

October 23, 2011
The Mighty Macs

There’s a wonderful underdog sports story out in theaters right now that’s charming, heartwarming, and true, and you’ve probably never heard of it. There are various reasons, but they mostly come down to the fact that The Mighty Macs is about women’s college basketball, which is still treated as a punchline rather than an actual sport. It’s downright shameful that it took four years for this film to find a distribution deal, and that Disney, of all companies, wanted to coarsen it up rather than release it with a G rating.

It’s hard to realize now just how short a history college women’s athletics have. It was 1971 when the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was formed to play the same role for them as the National Collegiate Athletic Association played for men. It wasn’t until ten years later in 1982 that the NCAA offered sports like women’s basketball and the AIAW disbanded. The 1971 season also brought rule changes that made women’s basketball more like the men’s game, and it was the year that brought Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) to tiny Immaculata College, just outside of Philadelphia.

Rush had played under the earlier rules for West Chester University, where she’d earned her master’s degree in physical education, and she wanted to coach now, especially with her husband, Ed (David Boreanaz), off on the road as an NBA referee all the time. Immaculata wasn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse; the Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) mostly viewed any athletic program as a way for the girls to blow off steam and keep their hormones in check. Indeed, it wasn’t exactly certain that the college would survive at all, much less support an intercollegiate basketball team.

But Rush was willing to try, despite every obstacle. And she brought that drive to succeed out of her team, and out of the whole school and community. And with the help of her assistant coach Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton) she managed to cobble her underfunded team together into a unit that not only went to the first AIAW national tournament, they came home champions. Three years in a row.

Writer/director/producer Tim Chambers went through some pretty unimaginable obstacles himself to bring this story to the screen, and it’s wonderful that he stuck with it. He brings out some great performances from the whole cast, even if the prose can be a bit overwrought at times. And while the basketball scenes may not be the most spectacular, he shoots them clearly and precisely enough that even someone who doesn’t normally follow basketball can understand what’s going on.

Gugino is as good a cinematic head coach as I’ve seen, but Shelton is really the one to watch. She plays Sister Sunday’s initial crisis of faith perfectly, and then humanizes her character far more effectively than most treatments of nuns ever do. The post-game conversation between coach Rush and Sister Sunday — you’ll know which one I mean — is film-making at its finest.

The Mighty Macs hasn’t gotten the widest release, with under a thousand theaters nationwide; even where it’s actually showing, nobody seems to know about it. I urge you to go out, watch, and see how an inspirational sports drama should be done, and then to demand more like it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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