Greetings again from the darkness. Sports parents. Band parents. Dance parents. Cheerleader parents. Drama parents. We all know THOSE parents … and many of us, whether we admit it or not, ARE those parents. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (JOE BELL, 2020) and first time screenwriter Zach Baylin bring us the story of the unconventional, hard-driving, flawed, well-intentioned father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.
Will Smith portrays Richard Williams in a showcase role that he capitalizes on. Richard Williams is not a particularly likable man – his hustler mentality is eclipsed only by his stubbornness. But more than anything, Richard Williams was committed to giving Venus and Serena every opportunity to succeed in a tennis world that seemed like a different universe to the Compton neighborhood in which they were raised. Richard and his wife Oracene (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, THE HELP) coached the young girls themselves in public parks via instructional articles in Tennis magazines. Both parents balanced their jobs with this coaching, and Richard spent a significant amount of time “marketing” the girls to professional coaches, most who had no interest in taking on pupils who couldn’t pay.
Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) trust whole-heartedly in “The Plan” their father has in place. It’s a plan designed to place million dollar checks in their hands, and lead them to the top of the tennis world. Their first break comes in the form of John McEnroe coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus. The real fun begins when Richard cuts a deal with super coach/trainer Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal) to take on both girls and cover the families living arrangements in Florida.
What makes this film work is that so many of us can relate to just how difficult it is to be a parent, and never settle for less when it comes to the kids. Now, Richard Williams is an extreme example – and his enormously successful daughters have dealt his approach a hand of credibility. Richard and Oracene are presented as very protective of their daughters, but also obsessed with helping them excel at school, tennis, and life. Given that there are three other daughters living in the house, it’s surprising that we don’t get more details on the reactions from those girls to the favorable treatment of Venus and Serena. The family is presented as being very tight-knit and loving, but it’s difficult to swallow that jealousy didn’t rise up periodically.
This truly is the story of how Richard Williams remained focused on getting his daughters to the top, so don’t expect the tennis history of Venus and Serena. The young actors playing them are excellent, but this takes us through the foundation of their careers while overcoming adversity, not the professional highlights. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) makes the tennis look legitimate, while also bringing us the family intimacy. In fact, the scene in the kitchen is one of the more intense and well-acted scenes we will see this year, and the camera work amplifies the tension. On the lighter side, we get Will Smith singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, and the closing credits show actual clips of Richard, Venus and Serena, as well as a rundown of their impressive achievements. Director Green has delivered a crowd-pleaser with some poignancy and a few well-placed messages. It wouldn’t surprise to see a few award nominations attached to this one.
Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19, 2021