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Jenny Mackenzie didn't set out to make a film about gender and soccer. In 2003, she volunteered to trade in her sidelines soccer-mom stance to coach a group of first-graders in a Salt Lake City girls' recreation league.
But by the end of the Mighty Cheetahs' second season, Mackenzie was faced with a seemingly happy outcome. Her team was unbeatable, winning every game, even against older girls - with point spreads as wide as 15-0.
A wiry dynamo with cropped brown hair and an earnest, toothy smile, Mackenzie wanted the girls to experience the joy of victory, but what kind of lesson could they learn from winning all the time?
"I also wanted them to learn what it means to tie a game and to lose," Mackenzie says. So why not up the ante? Why not enter the Cheetahs in the boys league?
Thus began for the Cheetahs and Mackenzie a new season that would raise questions about the athletic gender gap in and become the subject of a documentary, "Kick Like a Girl," which is hitting festivals this month and propelling the Mighty Cheetahs from local curiosity to national phenomenon.
Mackenzie's mother, Elizabeth Biggs, is a playwright, and her father is the sitcom director Will Mackenzie ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Scrubs"), but she never expected to follow their lead. After earning a doctorate in social work, she worked with pregnant teens at the Salt Lake YMCA.
But the Mighty Cheetahs' story was worth telling, and after taking graduate-level courses in film production at the University of Utah, Mackenzie, then 42, took off her lens cap, put on her coaching hat, and set out to learn what the Cheetahs' experience might say about girls' athletics in a post-Title IX world.
A mighty season: Mackenzie's inter-gender proposal garnered mixed reactions - sometimes from surprising quarters.
Mackenzie's own daughter, Lizzie Loughridge, a team member, remembers saying, ". . . Mom? Jenny? Are you losing your mind?"
Some girls and parents were afraid of physical injury. Others were concerned about the emotional consequences - for the boys.
"My immediate reaction," says Annabel Sheinberg, Sophie Turok's mother, was "these poor boys. If they beat us, they were supposed to. If they lose, it's really embarrassing."
But with the blessing of the Salt Lake Firebirds' board of directors, the plan went forward.
By that point, says Lizzie Loughridge, "We were like, 'bring it on.' "
So bring it on Mackenzie did. In the 24-minute film, the boys freely share their biases about girls' abilities. Hence, the film's title, a stereotypical slight.
"Some people probably think that girls have a tiny foot and they probably can't like kick the ball or anything," says Aaron Friedman, a soccer player on an opposing team.
During the season, some of the boys' parents contributed to the problem. "You're losing to girls," fathers called out from the sidelines.
But "Kick" goes beyond the individual boys, girls and parents, to examine two larger issues: the differing strategies of play between boys and girls teams (girls tended toward cooperation, boys toward showboating), and the broader impact of the Mighty Cheetah's mighty season on both genders.
From Salt Lake to Santa Barbara: "Kick Like a Girl" had its premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on Feb. 2, to enthusiastic response. The screening was sold out, and afterward Mackenzie and Loughridge were swarmed by the audience.
"People wanted to know where they could see the film again and if it could be used for educational purposes," says Mackenzie. In fact, "Kick Like a Girl" will play at several festivals and will be featured in March on the Web site of Licensetothrive.org, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to exploring Title IX.
License to Thrive director Theresa Moore will also include footage from "Kick Like a Girl" in a special she is producing for ESPN2. Moore says Mackenzie's film "speaks to where we are today with regard to the gender gap not only in sports but other arenas."
After the season's gender-bending experiment, Kathy Schlein says Mackenzie's experiment was worthwhile, even though her own son's team had its, um, butt kicked by the Cheetah girls.
"There's no doubt," Schlein says, "that these boys will walk away feeling a completely different way about the girls."
"In the future," she predicts, "they're going to honor women in all the different environments in which they experience them."
* "Kick Like A Girl," a film about a girls' soccer team that competes against boys, will screen March 28 at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School. For information and to watch a trailer, visit www.kicklikea girlmovie.com.