Friday, October 21, 2011

The Mighty Macs -- teamwork, commitment and dreams

Director: Tim Chambers, 2011. (G)

What was the last movie you saw whose main characters were a married Baptist woman and a pretty young nun who drank together in a bar? If you can’t remember, why not see this one where these two become the coaching force behind a women’s collegiate basketball team. Written, directed and produced by Tim Chambers, The Mighty Macs is a feel-good family film that is wholesome and engaging. Despite a “by-the-numbers” approach, it elicits a strong emotional appeal as it carries us along the journey of an underdog team. Based on the true story of the Mighty Macs, the film keeps us enthralled, even if the end is known, till the last buzzer sounds and the champion is crowned.

The year is 1971, a time when women mostly stayed at home while their husbands worked. But like Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, a contemporary film also centered on an inspiring and liberating woman, Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino, Watchmen) is a woman ahead of her time. Recently married, she decides to apply for the coaching position at Immaculata College in Philadelphia, a small Catholic school not known for their sports programs. Offered the position by Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn, The Fountain), she discovers the obstacles that stand in her way: there is no gym, she has little support from the school’s administration, and the school is in dire financial straits. Worse yet, the students aren’t overly interested in a basketball team.

But team is what the film is about. And with the first national championship for women’s basketball at stake, teamwork is what is needed. Right from the start, Coach Rush tells the team that trust and teamwork are what win a championship.

Teamwork is the first value in this values-oriented sports drama. In an era when we emulate stars, the franchise players, The Mighty Macs calls us back to our place among others. Coach Rush tells her team to destroy ego. There is no I in TEAM. Five good players working in perfect synchronism with one another are better than five excellent players working apart. Whatever teams we find ourselves in, whether in sports or work, focusing on the team above self is a sure recipe for success. The apostle Paul tells us “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3-4). This is the foundation of teamwork.

As the team begins to gel, Coach Rush needs an assistant and she finds one in the young Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton, W). A former player, she agrees to work with the team and finds her downcast view of life in the convent uplifted and changed.

Change and commitment are two more positive values stressed in the film. Sister Sunday comments, “Change is vital.” It is, but it is conjoined to commitment. They go hand in hand. To win, the players had to want it, they had to be committed. But they needed to change, to improve. And that took sacrifice, and was painful.

No one likes change. Well, most people don’t like it. But without change we die. Growth is change. We cannot reach our goals if we do not embrace change. We cannot realize our dreams unless we are committed to them and push through any and all obstacles that come our way.

Daring to dream is the film’s tagline. A key scene involves the main player, Trish Starkey (Katie Hayek). Coming from a poor family, she approaches Coach Rush privately to inform her she has gotten a part-time job. She wants to be able to practice with the team on a limited basis. But Coach Rush tells her she must choose one or the other. The team requires complete commitment, not part-time participation. Then she asks Trish if working at the store is her dream. Obviously, it is not. Daring to dream requires stepping out in faith and making the commitments needed.

Do we dare to dream? Are we prepared to look above and beyond our current existence and see something bigger and better, like Rush? Or are we trapped in the here and now, eking out a sterile survival like Trish almost did? Are we so settled into our ruts that we refuse to change? Dreams motivate. Dreams inspire. Dreams move us forward.

Dreams drive us to discipline. In a key pep talk to the team, Coach Rush quotes Paul’s comments on athletics: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Because of the teamwork, she tells them they deserve to win, to attain their dreams. They have made the sacrifices, they have changed together.

As the film progresses, the underdog Macs go from being lackluster losers to competing to finally winning. Their rivalry with Maryland reveals a secret in Coach Rush’s past and gives them opportunity to banish the ghosts of the past. Of course as with most Cinderella-sports films, while the Macs don’t appear to have a prayer, their commitment and teamwork prove that such appearances can be wrong. Even if they play in outdated uniforms with second-hand sneakers, their heart is in the right place and the “W’s” appear in the box-score.

Gugino and Shelton have excellent chemistry as the two women pushed together to change the Mighty Macs. They are the heart of the film and they win us over. The players are largely unknowns and that plays to the concept of teamwork over ego. Their acting is adequate alone but remarkably acceptable together. And this turns an ordinary sports film into an uplifting charmer, one that runs over with sentiment and energy. I must admit I shed a few tears along the way.

My favorite scene occurs in a bar where Coach Rush and Sister Sunday stop for a beer on the way home from a game. Letting her habit fall and her hair down, Sister Sunday recounts the story of her unconventional journey to the convent. They are from different faith backgrounds but both believe in the Lord Jesus. And my favorite line comes when Sister Sunday says, “Jesus likes to dance”. That was her reason for becoming a nun.

What does this mean? I think it refers to the fact that Jesus is not a humorless rule-keeping, fun-avoiding fuddy-duddy. He wants to live life to the fullest just as he wants this for us, too (Jn. 10:10). Sister Sunday points to the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Jn. 2) where Jesus turned water into wine when the wine ran out. He was deeply involved in this celebration of life. He enjoyed the victories, he laughed with his friends. But he was also committed to his mission and vision and poured himself into that (Matt. 16:21). We can, no we must, see Jesus as the Savior who leads, who loves, who dances and who dreams. And we must dare to believe!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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