Absorbing sports biopic mixing feel-good and a no-holds-barred approach to the titular subject with a terrific performance from Will Smith. Some commentators complained the film was too long but I was so caught up in it I was surprised when it suddenly came to an end. Beyond recognizing the achievements of the Williams sisters, I had no foreknowledge of the Williams story. The movie follows their early years until the professional debut of Venus (Saniyya Sidney).
Although following a traditional triumph-over-adversity narrative, this is as concerned about the intricate workings of U.S. tennis where the odds were so stacked against black players, saving Arthur Ashe, that club members were taken aback to register the boldness with which Williams Snr, entered their arena. For most of the picture what we see is struggle, Richard Williams (Will Smith) trying to interest coaches in his two daughters. The tennis system is laid bare, the need for funding and then big bucks sponsorship the ultimate goal, the Jennifer Cipriani case quoted as the downside of a system where parents push their children to the limit, setting aside any interest in a normal childhood in a bid to break into the professional game.
Williams is both inspiration and a complete pain in the neck. He comes across as warm and awful at the same time, a whole set of rigid rules getting in the way of the happy family he seeks to establish. His arrogance takes some beating. Having devised a business plan to turn his kids into superstars he finds it difficult to change his tune even when his methods result in zero success. He wants to correct the coaches, on occasion cheat them, but is so determined that Venus and Serena will not become tennis brats that he holds back their leap up the junior tennis circuit in case it prevents their development as people, impacts on their education and denies them a childhood.
The tennis matches are well handled. My ignorance about the Venus sisters’ career path meant that I found the actual tennis riveting. And the fury of children beaten by the upstart Venus tells you all you need to know about the pressures facing prodigies.
Zach Baylin’s debut screenplay is terrific, finding time to fill us in on Williams’ checkered past, professional and romantic failure. Prejudice isn’t limited to white people, he is beaten up by local hoods while a neighbour calls in social services. Charting the family dynamics allows wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) an occasional turn in the dramatic spotlight. The relationship between Venus and Serena (Demi Singleton) is well nuanced as they move from giggling kids to more mature teenagers, loyalty to each other tested when Venus receives preferential treatment, each with their individual battles, until in specific ways they take charge of aspects of their careers.
Will Smith (Bad Boys for Life, 2020) is a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, but the supporting cast is exceptionally strong. Aunjanue Ellis takes a giant step up from television (Lovecraft Country, 2020) and as the sisters Saniyya Sidney (Fences, 2016) and in her rmovie Demi Singleton – just 15 and 14, respectively – are both delightful and convincing. Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2020) and Tony Goldwyn (The Mechanic, 2011) play real-life coaches, the former frustrated to the point of torture by Williams’ antics.
Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, 2020) delivers on several counts: drawing sterling performances from the actors, allowing the screenplay to breathe so the picture doesn’t feel cramped or rush, and setting genuinely exciting tennis matches.
This is already a certified box office flop, in part because of Warner Brothers’ hybrid release, in part I guess don Richard Williams polarising public attitudes, and that’s a shame because it is thoroughly enjoyable and despite misgiving about Williams as a person it is a truly astonishing achievement that against all odds a security guard and his nurse wife should have achieved such success.