Isn’t it strange how so many based-on-fact underdog sports movie set in the recent past end up looking the same? Sure, the locations and sports change, but they otherwise fall into a familiar, Remember The Titans-like formula: A team nobody believes in gets a coach whom no one thinks has what it takes, then achieves the seemingly impossible, even though the forces in their way include some underlying social, racial, or political prejudice. Vintage costumes required. Inspirational, montage-friendly soul hits preferred. Very much in that vein, but on a smaller budget than its inspirations, The Mighty Macs tells the story of how Cathy Rush first led the women’s basketball team of Pennsylvania’s Immaculata College (now Immaculata University) to a national championship in 1971, even though, you guessed it, the odds were stacked against them.
Here, those odds are largely related to money, as the nearly bankrupt—at least by the film’s account—college struggles to survive, much less field a basketball team. Carla Gugino plays Rush as a woman trying to enjoy the era’s new independence. (She’s introduced while driving to her new job, listening to a radio report on the women’s movement.) She knows she has what it takes to whip the team into shape, even though Immaculata’s gym burned down, leaving them without a practice space. But first, she has to win over the nuns who run the school (including a highly skeptical Ellen Burstyn), and deal with a pouty husband (David Boreanaz) who doesn’t really like the idea of her doing her own thing.
Formulas work if you know how to work them, but writer-director Tim Chambers, making his theatrical debut, only gets the beats right part of the time. Gugino has some nice scenes with Marley Shelton, who plays an assistant coach having a crisis of faith as she prepares to take her final vows, but the team members remain largely indistinguishable from one another. (At one point, the film even throws in a scene in which Gugino’s voiceover describes some key members while giving each a single defining personality trait.) Worse, though we see the team succeed, the film never fully explains why it’s succeeding. Apart from one scene in which Gugino makes her players run sadistic-seeming drills under a bridge one night, her approach seems fairly conventional. There must have been a reason why the real-life Rush could do so much with seemingly so little, but The Mighty Macs never captures it. It lets canned inspiration provide the uplift, instead of something more tangible.