“The Mighty Macs” is based on the true story of the underdog Immaculata (thus “Macs”) College women’s basketball team in Philadelphia in 1971-1972. The college is run by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. In the film, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) is a rather severe but dedicated college head, trying to keep her school afloat. Her goals are very different from her school’s young upstart basketball coach, Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), who is determined to get her ragtag basketball team to their first national championship. Cathy is newly married to her husband, Ed (David Boreanaz), and friction is created by her going against the expected cultural grain and not staying at home, but giving much of her time and energy to basketball.
Everything in the film is tenuous: the school’s solvency and future, the basketball coach’s job, and the very members of the basketball team—many of whom have pressing reasons not to stay on the team. A young Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton)—much to Mother St. John’s chagrin—gets over-involved with the basketball team, causing even more tension.
In 1972, the famous Title IX was being enacted. It was an educational amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and wasn’t specifically about sports, but ended up greatly impacting women’s sports, stating that any activity receiving federal funds couldn’t discriminate on the basis of sex.
There is a gradual build up and transformation of the team from raw talent to honed skills, in great part because of Cathy’s confidence-building. In the end, the entire convent becomes the team’s biggest boosters and unofficial cheering squad.
Like the movies “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Soul Surfer,” this is a girls’ sports film, but with a Catholic twist. Tim Chambers, the writer-director, is from Philadelphia, and was taught by the IHMs himself. His intention in bringing “Mighty Macs” to the screen was to tell Catholic stories and portray Catholics from a Catholic point of view. Some concessions with Hollywood had to be made in order to make that happen (for example, some of the prayer was removed), because Hollywood thought the movie was “too Catholic.” (Are Woody Allen’s films “too Jewish”?) Um, the movie is about nuns, for Pete’s sake! The real heroes, however, are the young basketball coach and her team.
Mother St. John and Sr. Sunday end up being rather one-dimensional and stereotypical (the stern Mother Superior and the scared rabbit younger sister), but otherwise, it’s a great slice of history. We can easily forget that opportunities for women were once much more limited, not so long ago.