The curtain for The Mighty Macs rises with Cathy Rush (played by a surprisingly blonde Carla Gugino) driving her VW Bus through the Pennsylvania countryside to interview for the basketball coach position at the Catholic girls-only Immaculata College. The radio gives us the latest bulletins. News flash: Richard Nixon, running for reelection, won't pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. Extra: feminists are demanding equal pay or some such. We don't hear the whole thing because Rush finds it tedious and switches it off.
This tells moviegoers two things. First, we've time traveled back to early 1970s. Second, and more important, no, it's not going to be that kind of a movie. It's a story about struggle and triumph whose principal actors are women, sure. But it isn't a story about feminism. Rush isn't trying to shatter glass ceilings. She wants to coach a winning women's team before she settles down to raise a family with her husband, the NBA ref Ed Rush (Bones's David Boreanaz).
It's going to take a lot of doing. Immaculata is a small college teetering on the financial precipice, as the dour but decent Monsignor (Malachy McCourt) and assorted board members and building surveyors constantly remind us. The school's team, nicknamed the Macs, has a record so underwhelming that Rush is the only applicant for the job. The gym recently burned down, so those home games are going to be tricky.
Rush recruits a team, led by star shooter Trish Sharkey (Katie Hayek), but quickly sees she's in over her head. Divine intervention arrives when the coach notices one of the nuns knows how to shoot hoops. Sister Sunday (played by a very Christina Ricci-looking Marley Shelton) starts out as that old movie cliché, the Pretty Young Nun who is Questioning Her Calling, but she quickly establishes herself as the moral center of the film.
Sunday gives encouragement and shot-blocking tips to the team. She stands up to Rush when the coach goes all Bobby Knight on the girls, insisting that they have a fundamental dignity as young women that must be respected. As they get better, the sister reminds Rush that victory on the court is not enough. The motivation driving them to the net is every bit as important. And at one make-or-break point this pious nun commits what Victor Hugo would call "an act of sacrifice" and lies through her teeth to save the day.
It won't ruin the ending to say that the Macs achieve some measure of success. The Mighty Macs is based on a true story. The Immaculata team really were national champs of women's college basketball from 1972 to 1974 and this is very much the authorized version. Several members of the school's first championship team appear as nuns in the film.
Two behind-the-scenes struggles make The Mighty Macs more interesting than your run-of-the-treadmill sports flick. One is the struggle over distribution. The movie was first shown in 2009 at Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival but took some time to land a national distributor. Disney was interested but wanted to add a few mild swears to bump it from a G to a PG rating. Writer-director Tim Chambers said heck no, so had to find a different distributor.
The second struggle is over Katie Hayek, or perhaps we should say, over Hayek's health. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania-born actress was perfect for the role of Sharkey. She both looked and lived the role, having played guard for the University of Miami on a full basketball scholarship. However, just as she was cast in the part, she found out that she had Hodgkin's lymphoma and would need to undergo treatment stat.
Hayek told reporters she would have understood if the director had recast a non-cancer stricken actress in her role. But Chambers didn't see it that way. He decided Hayek was indispensable and found a way to make it work. Chambers bumped her shooting schedule up. She wore a wig throughout to mask the effects of the chemo.
Hayek's best scene comes when the whole team is posing for pictures. She is poor and without good clothes, so the photographer tries to hide her away behind the other girls. She fights back tears and retreats to a bathroom. Rather than talk her out immediately, her teammates go ransack their own wardrobes to help girl her up. The affection they display for her is obvious and -- we now know -- heartfelt.