So what I thought was to be a mere screening of this little inspirational-film-that-could turned out to be a full-blown world premiere at the Kimmel Center in Philly, with stars and dignitaries (including Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and Archbishop Charles Chaput) in attendance. If I’d known I would have combed my hair and thought of a more interesting question to ask star Carla Gugino than “Are you often confused with Maria Bello?”
The Mighty Macs, which opens October 21, tells the story of the Immaculata College women’s basketball team and its come-from-nowhere victory in the 1972 national championships, this at a time when women’s college basketball was barely covered nationally. That an all-girl’s Catholic college supposedly on the verge of financial ruin and with barely a hoop to call its own could scale the heights reserved for world-class champions is what puts this tale in Rudy and Hoosiers territory. The question is whether it’s fit to play in that league.
The film opens as Cathy Rush (Gugino) arrives at the Pennsylnania campus of Immaculate college. Rush is quickly hired as head coach of the women’s basketball team for the simple reason that she is the only one to have applied. While she has no coaching experience per se, Rush is a former player herself and a ball of untapped hunter-gatherer talent looking for some game, and the Immaculata principal, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn), while having only a vague interest in or appreciation for the sport, knows that it has potential in keeping her students’ raging hormones in check.
So the single-minded Rush proceeds to play bull in the China shop, recruiting players during Mass and thinking nothing of employing men’s-style tactics on even some of the delicate flowers that are these samples of innocent Catholic feminine virtue.
With a basketball that looks like it’s part of the geological record, and a gym that is nothing more than a pile of ashes, Coach Rush has a hard time inspiring these girls about the importance of dreaming big dreams: not just winning a game or two but going all the way in a sport few people care about at a time when women’s life roles were still pretty much tightly circumscribed. What would success even mean if it didn’t usher in a husband and babies?
But like any good coach, especially of the cinematic variety, Rush refuses to allow this ragtag team of underachievers to give up on themselves. And slowly but surely they go from losers to winners, with nuns jumping for joy in their bonnets and high-top Keds.
And that’s the problem.
Here’s what you would never know had you not had a chance to speak with some of the stars and their real-life counterparts before the movie started: the character of Trish Sharkey, played by Katie Hayek, was based on Theresa Shank Grentz, who was considered the “Jerry West” of women’s college basketball, an athlete of extraordinary ability who was named to the U.S. national team in 1974 world championship. As portrayed in the film, she is a mediocrity who gets a little better. The college was never as close to closing as depicted, nor was the president of the college the stereotypical crone that is the stock-and-trade of movie-mother-superior types. (In fact, when some of the real-life Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sisters remarked on the harshness of the portrayal in the first cut of the film, they were told by the director that “movie audiences love mean mother superiors.” Great.)
So what do we have here, really? An oft-times charming, goodhearted movie that cherry picks cliches from other heart-in-your-throat sports favorites but never manages to cobble together either a convincing or a thrilling narrative. Rush’s thoroughly forgettable film husband (David Boreanaz), a basketball coach himself, is against his wife working (this is 1972 after all). Then he warms to her successes and comes to support her. Why? Well, that’s what decent husbands do.
The principal of Immaculata seems clueless about the importance of the basketball team to these girls — and ultimately, presumably, to the college — and anyway she has much bigger burdens to bear staving off the closing of the virtually bankrupt institution. Then she begins to cheer them on and even helps raise money to get the team airline tickets to the nationals (in one nice touch of a scene, we find out what the former poker-hustling nun has done with all her winnings over the years). Why the change of heart? What’s going on in the inner life of this woman reaching the end of a long vocation and career? For that matter, what do these nuns think about the new opportunities suddenly opening up for young women? Who knows? None of it is in the film. And despite what first-time director Tim Chambers and co-screenwriter Anthony Gargano probably thought, they need to be, to thicken these characters and deepen our appreciation for their accomplishments, their perseverance, and their character.
We go from a string of losses to some tough drills to some unexpected victories to a big loss to a big victory and so on, with lots of generic inspirational talk peppered throughout. This is movie-of-the-week stuff. I half expected to see those whirling newspapers that suddenly stop to blurt out headlines to tell most of the team’s story, except that interest in women’s college basketball circa 1972 was relatively limited and local, so there were no headlines being generated.
Again, if you had a chance to talk to the original Immaculate players — and even their actor counterparts, some of whom were products of Catholic schools — you would have come away with anything but a stereotypical notion of an all-girls Catholic school. One after the other told of how the nuns encouraged them to pursue their dreams, to use their brains, to go out into the world and be both ethical and successful. And those young women, supposedly indoctrinated in the medieval patriarchal paradigm of the wretched Roman Catholic Church, went out into the world and became doctors and lawyers and scholars — and yes, highly successful basketball coaches. And without whining about how they’re now “recovering Catholics.”
This was a another kind of feminism at work in the lives of American girls, one that did not pit women against men (or even against other women as they vied for sparse opportunities) but women’s poor expectations against their highest aspirations. (One of the surviving IHM nuns talked to us about the virtue of friendship and how that informed the education and the characters of the nuns’ young charges.)
There’s a great story here in The Mighty Macs. Carla Gugino is quite engaging as Cathy Rush, and spending some time with the real Rush before the premiere impresses you all the more with Gugino’s dead-on portrayal of the trailblazer’s winning spirit. David Boreanaz (Bones) has little to do here but start flying in the direction of the winds of change, Ellen Burstyn could have played this thin gruel of a role in her sleep (and there are scenes in which it seems as if she almost did), and the girls who play the Mighty Macs themselves were chosen more for their basketball-playing ability than any acting experience. And, of course, you have the pitiless Irish monsignor (are there any other kinds? I mean, in the movies?), played with adequate heartlessness by Malachy McCourt, who is basically in charge of deciding the school’s, and these women’s, fate — until he isn’t.
Marley Shelton (pictured above) as Sister Sunday, the novice doubting her vocation until Rush presses her into service as her assistant, does a lot with a little, I thought. She’s not Amy Adams in Doubt, but then again, she didn’t have that kind of material. Yet there’s a spark there that ignited by a decent script could result in a blaze of a career. And Kim Blair as the player whose highest goal is to marry her long-time sweetheart also shows a lot of promise. There’s a sharp intelligence and biting humor that you remember, and I have no doubt that, given the right breaks, we will be seeing her in meatier roles.
So there you have it. I hope this film does well, although I fear the critics will be terribly unkind (and I hope I haven’t been aggressively so). Director Tim Chambers and his business partner Vince Curran deserve a lot of credit for raising the $7 million budget, hooking some fine talent (including A-list cinematographer Chuck Cohen, whose credits include Jerry Maguire and Any Given Sunday), and persevering for four years to get a distributor. But here’s the dilemma of covering films like this. You want to see these Christian-themed films do well so that more Christians will be encouraged to pursue the arts — and also so that studios and production companies will be convinced of the films’ box-office viability. This, in fact, has been a banner year for such films: from the glorious Of Gods and Men and The Tree of Life to more sentimental fare like Soul Surfer and the preachier Courageous — even now The Way — films with significant Christian content are proving to be winners, some with the critics, some with audiences, and some with both. (Which is probably why Chambers was able to convince his distributor to open the film on 1,000 screens and not the original 250-300.)
And those of us who care about such things are crying, More, more, more! Not all of them will be winners, but look at what Hollywood produces in general, certainly many more misses than hits. The point is to have a surplus of options so that we can afford a couple of losers without the entire industry going See? No one wants to see that stuff but a few born-againers in the Bible Belt or some Latin Mass Catholics.
So despite my reservations about The Mighty Macs, I can’t help but urge you to keep it on your radar and check it out for yourself. It’s flaws are those more of omission than commission — that is, I wanted more from these characters and their inner lives and barely articulated dreams, not less. I wanted more made of how women’s basketball was virtually put on the map by Immaculata and Cathy Rush’s three consecutive championship seasons. And I wanted more about what this specifically Catholic education meant in the lives of these young women.
Catholic filmmakers generally are more fearless in producing films that compare and contrast Christian and secular values. Too many evangelicals are still stuck in the mindset that every film has to end with a Billy Graham-esque come-to-Jesus moment or they will have disappointed God, compromised their beliefs, and given the Hollywood Great Satan a foothold in their hearts. Protestant filmmakers can learn a lot from their Catholic counterparts in this respect, although the Catholic view is usually more expansive than many evangelicals are comfortable with.
What do I mean by that? Here’s an example: There’s a gut-wrenching scene toward the end of Of Gods and Men in which one of the French Cistercian monks, contemplating his possible fate at the hands of Algerian Muslim terrorists, rather than raging about Islamic jihadism, the collapse of the West, and the culture wars, says this in narration:
Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.
Can you even imagine something of comparable beauty — whether you’re comfortable with that final Insha’Allah or not — from the people who brought you Fireproof or the Left Behind movies? That is a truly catholic view that I, frankly, am only vaguely capable of and that I daresay many Catholics may find troubling (although I sincerely doubt the Cistercians are a raging order of relativists). But man if that doesn’t set you to thinking about the deep, dark, and secret things of God.
Even in the little Mighty Macs effort, when Sister Sunday learns that Cathy Rush (above, for real) is not Catholic but — gulp! — a Baptist, she immediately asks: “But you are a believer?” To which Coach Rush replied, “Above all things.” Sister Sunday thinks a moment and then says, relievedly, “Then we are sisters.” There is enough in those four little words to offend all manner of man and beast.
First, the fundy Protestants who have written off Catholics as Christians to begin with. Second, the rad-trad Catholics who must bristle at this Second Vatican ecumenism. And third, and most important, the secularists who despise the notion that faith in a creed should be what draws these two women together as sisters. Shouldn’t it be their sex? Their class? The struggle for equal pay for equal work, for sexual liberation — for liberation from the Church and its sexual mores?
Christians are poised to produce not just G-rated and inoffensive fare but some major cinematic works — even aht — that will get tongues wagging for all kinds of reasons, and about issues that Hollywood and even indie fare (Higher Ground being an honorable exception, I thought) don’t understand and can’t touch. Despite the narcissistic rages of the New Atheists, now is the Christian Moment in Film. But it will be a fleeting one if we don’t come out and support this work — not as uncritical cheerleaders, as I hope my above review makes plain, but rather as people who once again want to leave a cruciform impress on the culture, even high culture.