Family-friendly and abounding in uplift, “The Mighty Macs” is an undemandingly pleasant indie drama about the true-life exploits of the 1971-72 Immaculata College basketball team, which set a new standard for achievement in women’s sports. Pic is so persuasively evocative of its period setting, and so similar in tone and language to G-rated fare produced during that period, that it wouldn’t be surprising if, decades from now, some unwary viewers actually mistake it for a ’70s release. Right now, it should score with auds seeking wholesome theatrical and homevid entertainment.
Indeed, “Mighty Macs” conceivably could tap into the same demo drawn to recent faith-based pics, even though, despite the preponderance of nuns and references to God throughout, it qualifies more as a mainstream megaplex offering with potentially broader appeal.
Carla Gugino is aptly feisty as Cathy Rush, depicted here as a budding feminist happily married to an NBA ref (David Boreanaz), but determined to establish her own identity. She finally lands the job opportunity she seeks at Pennsylvania’s Immaculata College, a liberal-arts university, limited exclusively to women at the time, where sports of any sort have low priority.
Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn), the harshly pragmatic dean, warns that Immaculata doesn’t have a gym, a history of athletic accomplishment or even a budget for team uniforms. Worse, Immaculata is in such bad financial shape, the institution may be sold to land developers.
What the school needs is divine intervention. What is gets is a feisty basketball coach who demands total commitment and disciplined teamwork from her players, even if they have to play in really, really unflattering dresses that oddly resemble Judy Garland’s attire in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“The Mighty Macs” follows a story arc previously traced by countless other sports pics, as Rush encourages her players to transcend their defeatist mindset and, after a few early humiliating losses, prove their prowess. But there’s a feminist touch to this particular version of the oft-recycled scenario, as the coach helps a cash-strapped, sartorially challenged player (Katie Hayek) boost her self-esteem and inspires a marriage-obsessed beauty (Kim Blair) to be all she can be on the court after her boyfriend dumps her. And while its religious content is limited largely to gags involving cute nuns and their lovable quirks, the film deals sympathetically with the crisis of faith endured by a young novitiate, Sister Sunday (winningly played by Marley Shelton).
Even auds who know nothing about Rush’s real-life coaching successes will have no trouble figuring out early on where “Mighty Macs” will wind up. Writer-director Tim Chambers does little to generate suspense, and appears determined to immediately defuse any situation that even hints at the possibility of unpleasantness. When Rush’s husband complains about feeling neglected, the argument ends before it really starts. And a guy who comes on to Rush and Sister Sunday (while the latter isn’t wearing clerical garb) in a roadside tavern turns out to be the most polite barroom Romeo in movie history.
From Gugino as the demanding coach to Hayek as the poor but proud MVP, perfs across the board are earnest and engaging. Burstyn does a nice job of lacing her character’s sternness with dollops of dry wit, particularly when she announces her low expectations where Rush’s efforts are concerned: “I’ll be satisfied if you just use these activities to repress their hormones.”
Production values evoke the period, with Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” used to the point of cliche in this kind of film, here excerpted quite appropriately.