On the surface, Mighty Macs is a solid, goodhearted sports movie. It has all the ingredients: a brash, young inspirational coach; a down-on-its-luck but scrappy sports team; adversity from teams that tower over it; and funding cuts threatening to close the school. The team lifts itself up with a gradual evolution of belief, one win at a time. With nuns cheering in the bleachers, it plays on faith, too, whether religious or the more secular faith of fans in a team, as victories start to seem possible.

Especially in context of the Athena Film Festival—a weekend-long program of films by and about women, held at Barnard College in mid-February—Mighty Macs tells a bigger story about women and sports before Title IX. At times, it plays for the laughs that balance a feel-good sports movie. Coach Cathy Rush promises to turn the college girls into athletes. “No,” gasps the Reverend Mother (played primly, but with a certain restrained glee, by Ellen Burstyn). “Just calm their hormones.” The girls on the Immaculata basketball team play in dress-like powder blue uniforms, looking dowdy and short against the slick bright shirts and shorts of an opposing varsity team. Coach Rush has her team run passing drills wearing oven mitts, to learn how to control the ball even through the thick, unwieldy fabric.

This is a story of transformation. The girls’ bodies change as they get confident enough to move fast and fluently across the court. There’s a transformation on the sidelines too, as Coach Rush grows more confident, and forms a wonderful friendship with Sister Sunday, a wide-eyed and questioning young nun.

After the film, writer/director Tim Chambers stayed for a discussion, joined by Kym Hampton, a former New York Liberty basketball player.

“Great sports films are always about something else,” noted Chambers. “Cathy Rush is about the equality of dreams. When I was a young boy, Immaculata’s team used to practice in our gym,” he said.

The film’s theatrical release in October will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Mighty Macs’ 1971-1972 season. But members of the 1971 team (left) used the Athena preview screening as an opportunity for a reunion weekend. Beaming as the credits rolled, they crowed, “You got the uniforms right!”


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