Let the boys have their Sandlots, Ducks, and Bad News Bears. The new G-rated family movie “The Mighty Macs” takes the familiar genre of sports stories for kids and gives it a new focus: girls playing and a woman coaching. While it has some fine moments, the movie based on a real life college championship basketball coach named Cathy Rush turns out to be more of a near-miss rimshot than a nothing-but-net from the three point line.
In the early ‘70s, Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) has recently married her NBA referee sweetie, but chafes at the notion of settling quietly into a wifely role in which the most exciting part of the day is cooking dinner. A basketball player in college, she is not ready to give up the game just yet, nor her identity as an athlete.
When an all-girls Catholic high school posts an opening for a basketball coach, Rush is the first applicant through the door. In fact, she’s the only applicant. Immaculata College is the kind of place nice Catholic girls go before marrying at graduation, not the place aspiring athletes look for glory. The nuns who run the school have problems of their own, including a crisis of faith and a distressing lack of funds. Cathy, however, sees winning basketball as worthwhile in itself, so she takes the undisciplined and unmotivated group of players who bother to show up and turns them into a national championship team.
The best part of the movie is watching Cathy redefine sports coaching into feminine concepts. She believes women work together better than men and thus focuses on teamwork. Her methods include honest discussion of lipstick colors as lessons on trust and practicing throwing balls with oven mitts on. Helped by a young nun (Marley Shelton) who isn’t sure of her calling, Cathy teaches sports as a woman, not as a man in heels.
As always, Gugino gives a workman-like (or workwoman-like) performance, perfectly portraying emotions without overacting. She is a far better actor than she gets credit for.
Other parts of the film don’t live up to Gugino. The characters of the girls on the team are especially clumsy. They’re drawn in roughly, like an artist’s pre-painting sketch, and never filled out. There’s the poor one, the saucy one, the one bucking her father, and the one planning her engagement. We never see anything more than a rough draft. The dialog between them is glaringly bad at times, to the point of wondering if the director just filmed a rehearsal run-through and called it a day.
Sadly, the nuns don’t fare much better. They, and their faith, are wonderfully respected, even celebrated. Some sparks of personality show through, as when the mother superior is revealed as a master poker player, but mostly they are as similar as penguins and not as interesting.
Little things are clumsily done as well. The setting is the early 1970s, but Cathy and her girls often look and dress oh so 2011.
This film could have been much better. It could have dared to talk more about women and sports, and examined things that the feminist revolution got right among all the extreme craziness. It could have highlighted excellence even when no one in the greater world cares about your sport or your school. It could have shown that nuns are people underneath their habits.
Still, for families looking for a movie that will not offend and will occasionally inspire, it works pretty well. It’s a mediocre effort that accomplishes what it sets out to do and not much else.