The Plot: California, the early 1990s. Richard Williams (Will Smith) lives a relatively ordinary life with his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis) and his five daughters. He has an extraordinary dream though: that his two 14-year-old daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) will take their love of tennis to the next level and work towards eventually becoming world champions. The girls show promise early on, catching the attention of coaches Paul (Tony Goldwyn) and later, Rick (Jon Bernthal). To navigate the waters of this mostly white, elite sport will take some direction from Richard as he guides them through choppy waters to success…
The Verdict: There have been many films made about the highly competitive sport of tennis, but nothing quite like the latest contribution King Richard. At face value, it’s a crowd-pleasing biopic of the early years of ace tennis superstars Venus Williams and Serena Williams. Initially starting out at junior trials with their teenage peers, becoming famous as child prodigies in the tennis scene and then storming the world stage with their undeniable talent. Dig deeper underneath the surface though and the tennis is more like set dressing for a much grander story of a father’s love for his daughters and his unshakeable belief in their abilities. This is at the core of King Richard, a title that is suggested by the father’s presence in his family rather than directly explained by the film. After all, this is a man who concocted a 78-page document about what he wanted his daughters to achieve in their lives. Wanting the best in life isn’t enough. He wants the very, very best for them.
Screenwriter Zach Baylin’s laser-focused script zeroes in on Richard, something of a character himself. He’s gentle and fatherly with Venus and Serena, but also very persuasive – and not just with them. When potential sponsors and money men come calling, Richard has his own corresponding written deal on standby. He pushes his daughters to succeed on the tennis court, taking one day and one victory at a time. Ambition is something that can go to people’s heads as they get caught up in the fame and the fortune that comes with it. What’s quite remarkable about this story is not just the rousing success of the dynamic duo on and off the court but also their grounded humility. Richard reminds his whole family of this when he amusingly runs Disney’s Cinderella for them and asks what they learned from it. This is a film that is as clear about what it wants to say about talent and success as its subjects – and is all the better for it.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters And Men) is careful not to push the underdog story too much. That would be too simplistic for a film that revels in its themes of parenthood and commitment to the family unit amidst the glamourous world of tennis. If anything, Green is pushing more the angle that Venus and Serena have the potential to be the equals of anyone else, even world-class players that are a decade older than them. There’s a fascinating concept at play here about sowing the seed of a positive idea in a child’s mind, nurturing it and helping it to grow over time. After that, there’s no stopping that child from overcoming any challenge presented to her. That could even extend to the child performances, which are terrific. Relative newcomers Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton really hold their own here against a seasoned veteran like Will Smith, creating a sparkling chemistry that has a lived-in quality.
Speaking of whom, this is one of Smith’s best roles in years. He anchors the film with conviction, love and a dash of humour. When given a narratively rich role like this, he can produce acting gold while keeping Richard Williams an entirely credible person rather than some amped-up Hollywood depiction. While it’s a long-ish film, it doesn’t come across as such – ending at a clearly-defined point that left this reviewer wanting to know more about this uniquely talented family. King Richard strides onto the tennis court with confidence and humility, delivering a game, set, match that is a winning formula all round. Oscar nominations beckon…
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Game, set, match
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Starring Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal.