The year is 1971, and the setting is the small but beautiful campus of Pennsylvania's Immaculata College, a Catholic school for women. Low donor support has the administration struggling to keep the doors open for its 400 students; the priest overseeing the college (Malachy McCourt) warns its Mother Superior (Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn) that it will take "an act of God" to save the school.
When an ambitious 22-year-old named Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) is hired to be the school's basketball coach (by virtue of being the only applicant for the position), no one on campus recognizes her as the answer to the school's prayers. Sports are considered little more than a way to keep young women out of trouble, and Rush soon discovers that the gym has burned down and there are no plans to replace it. Working with no facilities, no administrative support, and barely enough players for a team, the rookie coach and her Mighty Macs will be lucky to survive the season's first game. But sometimes miracles do happen, and the Immaculata campus is as good a place as any.
This better-than-fiction story of Rush and her team's rise from obscurity to a national championship is perfect fodder for an Underdog Sports Movie, and that's what writer-director Tim Chambers aims to deliver. Unfortunately, the film has more mixed results than the team it chronicles, due chiefly to a dialogue and speech-heavy script that is too self-consciously aware of all the Big Themes it wants to explore.
Before the 1971-72 season, no national championship existed in women's basketball, despite the success of men's NCAA tournament. Part way through her inaugural season, Rush and her team discover that the recently founded AIWA (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) is planning a championship tournament, placing their story at a flashpoint in the history of women's athletics in particular and women's rights in general. When the film depicts The Mighty Macs arriving at the inaugural tournament in the only uniforms available to them—belted tunics with bloomers underneath—it captures an historic moment of transition in a funny and striking way.
No less compelling are the personal stories of the coach, her team, and the surrounding personalities at the school. As a young woman who has completed her education, Rush is expected to settle down into her child-rearing years and give up her passion for basketball. Even her NBA referee husband, Ed (Bones' David Boreanaz), can't really understand her desire to pursue a coaching career. But Cathy is driven—partly by some ideas she has about the women's movement, but mostly by her love of sport—to give coaching a serious try. And the people around her—be they the student athletes she coaches or the bemused nuns who have never really been exposed to serious athletics before—can't help but be swept up in her determination and passion.
The cast members of The Mighty Macs do all they can to capture the large personalities that fuel this story. Gugino (best known for family fare like Spy Kids, Night at the Museum, and Race to Witch Mountain) brings likable warmth and convincing passion to the lead role, while Burstyn gives the harried but compassionate Mother St. John a satisfyingly multi-faceted complexity. Particularly compelling is Marley Shelton in the role of Sister Sunday, a young nun struggling with misgivings over her calling who becomes Rush's assistant coach and friend.