Always a bridesmaid and never a bride. Two-time Academy Award nominee Will Smith continues his quest for gold in this sports biopic about Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. It’s an interesting choice to orient a movie around him as opposed to the girls themselves, but it is one that mostly pays off here. Seeing as Venus and Serena served as executive producers on the project, it was apparently a decision that they were at least okay with. And it does give Smith the role that just may finally land him that Oscar, as he really gives it his all, capturing the essence of Richard Williams without veering too far into caricature territory like Rami Malek did in his oddly acclaimed Bohemian Rhapsody performance.
The movie opens in Compton, California in the early 1990s, as Richard strives to follow his “plan” for his 5 daughters, which includes turning Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) into tennis stars. He and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) put the girls through rigorous training as often as they can in the ragged courts of their neighborhood, while he simultaneously tries to promote them to top tier coaches in the hopes one of them will agree to take them on for free. This goes over about as well as you would expect it to, until one time when it finally works. Coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) agrees to take on Venus, while Richard records the lessons and his wife uses the tapes to continue training Serena. The girls begin to make waves in the Juniors circuit until Richard becomes nervous about what the pressure might do to them and pulls them both out of competition, finds a new coach in Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), and moves the whole family to Florida to continue to practice under his tutelage.
Seeing the two sisters beginning their journey that leads to where we all know it does makes for a very compelling story, especially since most probably didn’t realize just what the conditions they came from were like. It can feel like Richard was perhaps overbearingly strict, but it’s hard to argue with the end results, and the movie seems like it could be his daughters’ way of paying him loving tribute. That doesn’t mean this is a total hagiography. There are a few scenes that only feel like they were included to show that the tennis world was full of parents who were harsher on their kids than he was, but it does still show that he was far from a perfect man.
Otherwise, the movie mostly plays out like you would expect a sports movie to. The performances are all excellent, and the tennis matches can be thrilling to watch (and I can only imagine how hard it must be to choreograph and edit those to get the outcome you want), but aside from a few interesting shots the rest of the film looks pretty ordinary. Luckily the competent but uninspired direction is outweighed by the strong cast and source material to make a movie that fans are sure to love. ★★★★
Rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference, and brief drug references.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor