The Mighty Macs is a film from another planet, where stories are told, obliviously, in cryptic, nonsensical code, and people talk to each other in sugarplum proverbs no earthbound adult would ever inflict on another, not even on the set of a Hallmark Original Movie. Extraordinarily amateurish, it inadvertently shields you from fully grasping its narrative motivations, while simultaneously slugging your intelligence with thoroughly contrived scenarios, stupefyingly on-the-nose double entendres, and the ascribed importance of characters who have next to no development. Writer/director/producer Tim Chambers, who hails from the basketball drama's Philadelphia setting, claims to have received the full blessings of real-life chief subject Cathy Rush and the religious education institutions he depicts; however, what makes bashing this sweetly intended family flick feel less and less like a cruel act is that Chambers does a spectacular disservice to all involved with its true story, the supposed milestones of which aren't even articulated. Produced by Philly sports legend turned entrepreneur Pat Croce, The Mighty Macs is getting a major push in its home city, where a series of exorbitantly hyped gala screenings have promised to draw in swarms of locals. Here's hoping the venues have ample exits.
Set in 1971, the movie is supposed to tell the tale of how coach Rush (Carla Gugino) led a ragtag team of girls from tiny Immaculata College to become the first-ever national champions in collegiate women's basketball, a victory whose ripple effect apparently shook up cultural norms. The weight of those stakes is never communicated to the audience, and the film doesn't even seem to be aware of its feminist themes. Sure, Rush rolls into the modest school in typical Mona Lisa Smile fashion, ready to break some traditions and whip her female students into shape, but the only available sliver of what it all might mean for the girls and for women at large is that which we naturally infer as moviegoers, a response that Chambers foolishly and repeatedly banks on in all the wrong ways. The plot that is provided is more a retread of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, with a bunch of paranoid nuns searching for a miracle that'll save their cash-strapped school (doing her best Maggie Smith, a wildly out of place Ellen Burstyn plays the steely Mother Superior). Heralded by one of the film's more memorable exchanges ("It would take an act of God to save this school," says a priest; "That's what I've been praying for," says Burstyn), Rush is indeed that miracle, and she's got an endless stream of cure-all, tough-gal affirmations to prove it. Short of turning basketballs into Fabergé eggs, there's nothing Rush can't do, and you can bet she gets that skeptical head penguin to stand behind her cause, which has all the urgency of midnight mass.
Rush initially seems like an appropriate role for someone with Gugino's limits—perhaps the closest thing to a Norma Rae-style heroine she'll ever see in her career. But as the movie trudges on, there's a sort of palpable delusion that emerges, as if Gugino has adamantly convinced herself that the material is worth the embarrassment (just when you thought Taylor Lautner's lines in Abduction were the year's biggest knee-slappers, Gugino snatches top honors as she asks her prospective assistant coach, "Was that 'Amen' or 'I'm in?'"). Playing the assistant coach, a doubt-ridden ex-baller who goes by Sister Sunday, is Marley Shelton, who's forced to keep all irony at bay as she struggles through what has to be the worst dialogue of her professional life. In creating a bond between the two new coaching partners (Rush, of course, is Sister Sunday's salvation too), Chambers chooses to film the actresses in an entirely inappropriate bar with red-brothel lighting, and he hasn't the slightest clue that what starts to develop is the only movie worth watching here: a lesbian love story starring two Robert Rodriguez muses.
Across the board, Chambers seems ignorant of what he's delivering, from the arc of his story to his choice of shot. Declarations of hard-won accomplishment arise as the players' journey seems to only still be warming up, and many images, such as a frantic scanning of the school's buildings from Rush's POV, have no discernible context. The implied lesbianism isn't the only subversive element that seems to slip past Chambers's radar, as there's no sign of a knowing nudge in a scene where Rush gathers up some soon-to-be-discarded written assignments from her girls via a church collection basket, or in a small plot thread that sees the girls raise money by selling hand lotion to creepy old men. The filmmaker instead directs his attention to turning up the ill-chosen amber lighting, or squeezing every last bogus tear out of a subplot involving the team's poorest player, who says "Ma" and wears nothing but farmer clothes even though she lives a stone's throw from a major East Coast metropolis. On a strictly technical level, there's some competent framing despite a made-for-TV look, and there's at least a sense of legibility during the actual game scenes. But one really needs to dig down deep to find compliments for The Mighty Macs, an awful movie that makes you pray for the final buzzer.