It's sure not new, but somehow it never gets old. "The Mighty Macs" is a standard longshot-underdogs-go-the-distance yarn, the true story of a ragtag team that won the first national championship in women's college basketball. Immaculata College, a Catholic girls' school outside Philadelphia, had no gymnasium, no athletics budget and scant support for a basketball program in 1971. The near-bankrupt school's president, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn), just wants a physical activity to burn off a few of the students' hormones.
Things change with the arrival of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), a woman not content to sit on the sidelines of life. A former player married to an NBA referee, Cathy's a go-getter with a gift for motivational speeches, diagramming plays, encouraging her young athletes and when necessary chewing them out. Her zeal attracts Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), who signs on to help coach the team while struggling with her own growing doubts about life in the order.
"The Mighty Macs" isn't stylish entertainment, and it doesn't have especially high aspirations, but there's a soothing decency about it.
Written, directed and produced by Tim Chambers, who has a personal connection to Immaculata and an innate sense of where to put his camera, the film possesses a charming, bittersweet authenticity. The parish priest preaches to a half-full church. The poor students dress poor and work at mop-and-bucket jobs. The nuns feel they're being left behind by a changing world. Donations are dwindling, vocations are declining and one nun ruefully jokes, "In a few years we'll be an exhibit at the Smithsonian."
While the 1970s were a scary time for people who felt their values were being overturned, the social upheaval was exciting, too. Cathy's ardor to build a top-tier team injects a sense of hope in the little school and scores a few points for feminism along the way. A woman devoted to a cause really can work miracles, it seems, and can do so without having to be an imitation man. Gugino wears snappy, figure-flaunting outfits to work and conducts team trust-building exercises around helping one of the students choose an appropriate shade of lipstick.
Gugino is a spunky, winning presence (though at 40 she's 17 years older than Rush was when she started coaching the Immaculata team) and Burstyn is dauntingly dour and prickly as the hard-to-convince Mother Superior. The young players scarcely register as individual personalities and the on-court action you've seen before. Still, the comforting, time-honored formula of David and Goliath contests and last-second tiebreakers remains infallible.
"The Mighty Macs" is no slam dunk, but it's a very pleasant hour and a half in the bleachers.