It’s 1971 and this new thing called Women’s Lib is on everybody’s mind. And even though Cathy Rush isn’t ready to wave protest signs in the street, the idea of being a good little wife on the home front isn’t exactly her cup of tea either. So when a girls’ basketball coaching position opens up at nearby Immaculata College, Cathy is first in line.
Well, truthfully, she’s the only one in line.
The pay is a pittance. The school’s record is abysmal. Their gym burned down three months earlier. And the team’s only ball has seen better days. To say that the Catholic all-girl’s college puts athletic excellence low on the list of important collegial experiences is a severe understatement. In fact, the Mother Superior is more concerned with the team keeping the girls’ hormones in check than she is about winning games.
And even that is the least of her worries. It appears Immaculata may have to soon close its big oaken doors. Enrollment is weak and the board seems inclined to sell the buildings and property to settle a mounting debt.
Cathy doesn’t care about all that, though. This is her first real job. And she loves basketball. So nail up a rim. Find an air pump. Drag out the moth-eaten uniforms. And buck up, everybody.
The Mighty Macs are gonna play some ball!
At first, Cathy’s decision to work outside the home doesn’t sit well with her husband, Ed. They argue a bit about her choice. But in the face of that relational strain, a nun at the school, Sister Sunday, reminds Cathy to keep expressing her love for her husband (“Keep your eye on the ball, coach”). And with time and some supportive efforts on both their parts, Ed and Cathy find their loving common ground.
Even though Sister Sunday struggles a bit early on with her calling as a nun, her spirituality and common sense repeatedly shine through. She encourages Cathy with, “Not only is change possible, it’s as vital as breathing.”
The movie, meanwhile, encourages athletes to be diligent in their practice, work hard to be a team and never give up.
A student expresses her love to her mom after recognizing her extra efforts on her behalf.
Since Immaculata is a Catholic school founded by nuns, there’s a general sense of spirituality and prayer at play here. We see a priest sermonizing in church and nuns praying while doing their daily duties. Mother St. John states that she’s praying for an “act of God” to save the school. Sister Sunday openly lifts her thoughts to “my dear Lord Almighty” as she calls out for guidance.
There’s a very clear sense by story’s end that God has used the efforts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike to save the school and lift the perspectives of many who had given up hope. Cathy raises the spirits of the team by quoting the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” She also calls out a variation of Proverbs 23:7, saying, “As you think, so shall you be.”
When Cathy and Sister Sunday are approached by a flirtatious bar patron, Cathy states that she’s married and Sister Sunday reports that she’s “hitched” too—to a “carpenter” who can do “miraculous” things. The two women discus when it was that Sister Sunday knew she had been called to serve God. And the nun points out that her relationship with Christ is a joyous one, not strictly a dutiful one; she says, “Jesus likes to dance.”
Offices, hallways and bedrooms sport a variety of religious iconography, from crosses to pictures of Jesus to statues of Catholic saints.
Cathy wears a shirt that’s a bit low-cut. And she accuses a player of wearing “street-corner lipstick.” There’s a winking reference to a husband being “good with his hands.” During basketball practice, Sister Sunday gives a male player a casual “sports pat” on the backside—whereupon Mother St. John immediately shoos the boys out of the practice room.
A few of the young female teammates are bumped to the court during heated play. They’re run to near exhaustion during intense practice sessions.
Cathy and Sister Sunday drink beer at a bar. One of the students comments, “I liked it better when our uniforms smelled like mothballs and cigarettes.”
A nun casually mentions that the sisters used to gather to play poker. Sister Sunday lies while taking the blame for a poor choice so Cathy won’t lose her job. Cathy pretends to be a nun (dressing up in a habit) so she can score free airfare to a tournament.
With steps out of bounds so slight most refs wouldn’t even bother reaching for their whistles, The Mighty Macs comes off as well-made, well-acted and altogether cheerable. Based on a real-life underdog’s tale, it rah-rahs the importance of perseverance and grind-it-out determination. And it inspects the impact a coach can have on the lives of young players. But that’s not what sets it apart from so many other sports-minded movies. There’s more to enjoy here than just slick basketball court mechanics and the echoed squeak of sneakers on hardwood: There are some solid spiritual three pointers.
In the course of its slowly building action and buzzer-beating wins, The Mighty Macs subtly suggests that God can use seemingly insignificant things to answer the prayers of His faithful, changing the course of what we may see as inevitable. Faith and prayer prevail in things large and small we’re told. Even athletics.
A postscript: A woman’s place in society and at home has been a huge deal for a really long time. Not just in the ’70s. And not just in America.
But that’s not what The Mighty Macs is about.
Although some stay-at-home moms will surely feel slighted by the insinuation that there’s “more to life” than “just” managing a man and kids and a home (read: traditional roles and expectations), the movie’s overall feminist message is light, fluffy and, with 20/20 hindsight, looks to be about as controversial as suddenly announcing that women should indeed be allowed to vote. After all, the idea of a young bride wanting to spend her days coaching basketball is all but a basic human right in 2011. And the fact that it wasn’t in 1971 merely serves as a historical plot point here, not a bully pulpit.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.