The poster and the trailer for this documentary promise to reveal “the truth behind the legends”. That’s a bit of a stretch, but the film does offer an interesting, if uneven, glimpse into the Williams sisters’ rise from the gritty streets of Compton, California to the Center Courts of the championship tennis circuit. I still can’t tell them apart. But I now know that Venus is the older one – by 15 months. And together, they are one fierce, super-talented, competitive, intimidating and inspiring pair.
The film starts out strong, with a well-paced montage of images and quotes solidifying Venus and Serena’s status as icons, rivals, champions, and above all – sisters. But then it slows down – a lot. It also jumps around – a lot. Alternating between the girls’ early years under the driving force of their father, Richard, who looks like he took managerial lessons from Colonel Parker… and the later, glory years (which, by the way, aren’t necessarily over yet). Richard Williams appears to be almost single-handedly responsible for tennis’s greatest Sister Act. But he’s also one strange dude, with an obvious penchant for procreation and philandering. It’s all a bit distracting – especially as various themes are hinted at but never fully explored.
The documentary producers followed Venus and Serena over the course of the 2011 season – a year that saw both women battle and emerge from a bevy of a physical and emotional challenges. It would seem like a stroke of luck, time-wise, but the narrative never quite solidifies, and the cameras never seem to capture the full picture of what they are going through (I don’t think gross tight shots of self-injections and stomach drains count as valuable ‘insight’.) The film barely scratches the surface of their personal lives outside their stated devotion to God as Jehovah’s Witnesses, their desire to play tennis into old age, and their obvious love and devotion to each other – on and off the court.
The film features a rather random mix of talking heads, from fashionista Anna Wintour (to comment on the sisters’ unique sense of style) to former President Bill Clinton (who thinks the public should cut them a break when they do or say something self-destructive. really!?). Thank goodness tennis legend John McEnroe is featured prominently throughout to provide some actual, on-point commentary and perspective.
Venus and Serena is part documentary, part soap opera, and part inspirational sports movie that is most entertaining when it focuses on the behind-the-scenes, open mic moments. Just don’t expect too much. It’s okay, but not nearly as compelling as the trailer might suggest: