Sports films are chancy. In the olden days of Hollywood the actors were so unathletic that they were often laughable (The Babe Ruth Story, 1948, etc.). Worse, they were factually unreliable. Actually the best sports films were comedies like It Happens Every Spring (1949) starring Ray Milland and Paul Douglas, Angels in the Outfield (1951) starring Douglas, and Rhubarb (1951) starring Milland (Douglas had an uncredited role in Rhubarb, too).
Sports movies have improved, however, starting with Hoosiers (1986), and reaching a zenith with 2004’s Miracle, which chose its cast based on the actors’ hockey playing skills instead of their acting ability. Highlighted by terrific action scenes and wonderful cinematography, the result was an entertaining, believable film.
Writer/Director Tim Chambers had his work cut out for him in telling the remarkable story of the 1971-72 Immaculata College women’s basketball team. One problem is whether or not enough people will be interested in a women’s college basketball team to go to the film. Another was whether he could find actresses who could act and also look like they knew how to play basketball. Without that combination, the film would be a disaster. Chambers used the same method to cast the film that was used for Miracle, saying, “I would not allow any of the actresses to read for roles until I saw them play basketball. My philosophy was simple – if the audience couldn’t buy-in to their athletic talent, they would never buy-in to the story.”
In addition to knowing their way around the court, they had to look like they did in the early ‘70s. Chambers acknowledges that the physiques of female athletes have undergone enormous changes in 40 years. The result was a cast of athletic young women, all of whom are making their feature film debuts, and can act as well as they play basketball.
He then made an inspired choice by choosing Chuck Cohen as his Director of Photography. Cohen made his chops as an NFL Films cameraman. Anybody who has ever watched NFL Films knows that the guys they have filming the games are geniuses in capturing brilliant angles. You can’t watch any of the NFL Films’ productions without marveling “How in the world did they get that angle without knowing in advance what would happen and who would be where?”
Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) takes what is basically a volunteer job at small Immaculata College to coach its basketball team. She meets Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn), who is less than enthusiastic, as the school is near bankruptcy and the women’s basketball team is the last thing on her mind. That’s the least of Cathy’s worries, however, as the school’s gym has burned down and they don’t have any uniforms and only a few players. Worse, her husband, Ed Rush (David Boreanaz), an NBA referee, is even less enthusiastic than Mother St. John. About the only person on her side is a young novice, Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), who has problems of her own, worrying about the quality of her vocation.
What follows is a tremendously heart-warming story of someone facing enormous odds but persevering. The acting and story are so good it brought tears to my eyes as these young women fight the odds. Gugino carries the film but the performances of the entire cast shine.
The way Cohen sets up his game shots like he did when he worked for NFL Films and his cinematography, especially of the game action, give the film the verisimilitude it needs to allow the viewer to believe that these short young women could actually play and outscore bigger and stronger opponents.
Maybe a sequel should be made about Tim Chambers’ fight to get this film made and distributed. He too faced enormous odds and a less than enthusiastic reception from film companies and distributors. Disdaining the opportunity to have it go straight to video to recoup the costs, like the women whose story he filmed, he risked it all and went for the prize, and the film is opening in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide, an almost unprecedented rollout for a small, independent film, a victory almost as amazing as the story he tells.
This isn’t a basketball film. It’s a film about fighting the odds and hanging in there.