It took two years for THE MIGHTY MACS to finally make it to theater screens. It also took a title change from OUR LADY OF VICTORY. Granted, a G-rated film is a tough sell in the current marketplace, but this wholesome fare, based on a true story, is not as dull as its familiar idioms might make it seem.
It’s 1971 and Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) is doing the unthinkable. She is taking a job instead of letting her husband (David Boreanaz) support her. A high-school and college basketball star, Cathy is bored sitting around the house while her NBA referee of a husband travels around the country. She lands a job coaching the sport she loves at Immaculata College, a failing women’s institution. Actually, she’s the only applicant, but neither that, nor the lack of a gym (it burned down) or the fact that the school has exactly one basketball (scuffed and scarred) discourages her. She throws herself into creating a basketball program, and turning the young women on her team into winners on and off the court. Even if they are wearing uniforms that would have been outdated decades before.
Yes, it’s been done before, but throwing in a school that is being sold out from under Rush and the team without them knowing about it adds a nice dramatic tension. As for the team, of course it comes together, of course they stumble before becoming a powerhouse, and of course there are minor personal skirmishes along the way. Cathy’s husband is less supportive than he could be, but not to the point of the melodramatic cliché of an ultimatum forcing Cathy to choose between him and her dream. Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) doesn’t approve of Cathy’s bright red shoes or some of her more unconventional methods, but is hardly the stereotypical authoritarian. The team has the poor girl, the engaged girl, and the black girl, and while there isn’t much in the way of individual character development beyond those labels, what there is has a homey, authentic feeling, particularly a moment at the kitchen table where the mother of one hand-stitches her daughters sneakers back together.
It’s the performances that make this film worthwhile. Gugino is more spice than sugar with a strong performance enhanced with a real sense of commitment. Burstyn is no-nonsense while avoiding being either starchy or stuffy, in fact, she has a palpably tender heart as her character tries to keep everything from crumbling around her and her charges. Marley Shelton, though, steals the screen as Sister Sunday, a troubled novice who came to the convent by an unconventional route and has an uncanny knack for the game. Shelton gives her a sophisticated inner resolve as well as an equally sophisticated way of carrying herself in the convent and on the outside. With her wide eyes that are knowing, not innocent, to which she adds just a touch of mischief, she is the most fully realized character on screen, the one who piques the viewer’s curiosity, the one with the secrets worth hearing. That Cathy and Sister Sunday are also at oddly resonant crossroads in their lives is handled with a light but moving touch.
As for the actual basketball, the basics are explained, as are the aims and the goals without ever breaking the narrative stride. The games are filmed for maximum excitement, and if the direction elsewhere is less than stellar, it has the virtue of unadorned simplicity.
THE MIGHTY MACS has a gentle sweetness that is never cloying, never condescending. Instead there is an exuberance that is heart-warming -- the point of the exercise -- as it relates a tale of empowerment that didn‘t change the world at large, but changed the lives of everyone it touched. It’s well worth knowing.