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‘King Richard’ is a thoughtful crowd-pleaser, even if it doesn’t ace all its shots

Will Smith swings for Oscar gold as Richard Williams, father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

The following is an edited transcript of the video above.

King Richard follows the story of the two tennis prodigies who would go on to change not just the sport, but all sports and sport representation in general, and for an entire generation and beyond. Venus and Serena Williams (played in this movie as teenagers by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively) are likely the two greatest tennis players of all time and were set up to achieve this hall of fame status at the guidance of their eccentric father, Richard Williams (portrayed by Will Smith in one of his most transformative roles in years), who since their birth has had a specific, uncompromising, and unfaltering plan to mold these two into tennis legends.

So yes, this is one of those movies where we all probably know the end result, but it’s still fascinating to watch how it all unfolds. The film begins with Richard practicing meticulously and creatively with Venus and Serena in a humble tennis court with their other sisters there, as well. We get a detailed glimpse into their home life and to what lengths their father is willing to go in order for these two to not just be tremendous athletes, but excellent in school and in their personal lives, on and off the court.

When it comes to the tennis, he’s clearly spent countless hours studying the sport for years so that he can train them well enough to obtain expert coaching that they otherwise can’t afford, which is what most of this film is about: Richard going to extraordinary lengths to convince other people to give his daughters a shot at proving their greatness themselves.

First off, the film is tremendously entertaining and goes by surprisingly quickly despite its length, which is a little over two hours. It has that nowadays rare feeling of “they don’t make them like they used to,” in that almost every scene has something unique and uniquely rewarding at the end of it. One scene will be rather funny and lighthearted, the next will focus more on the heartwarming family dynamic, then another will be a bit more serious and high-stakes, yet they all fit together to advance the plot. It’s what makes a movie—any movie—fundamentally engaging and exciting to watch all the way through.

Ultimately, it’s a film about parenting. And the movie wouldn’t work without the brilliance of Smith’s performance, which is certainly unlike anything he’s done before. Gone is his usual, effortless swagger, and in Richard, he’s a bit crankier and unlikeable at times and harder to please, but also immensely kind-hearted. It’s easy to fall in love with the passion and confidence he has in his family.

In a role like this, Smith could have all too easily overshadowed Sidney and Singleton, and I imagine some critics will complain he still does, anyway. But the way I see it, the movie begins with Richard almost solely at the forefront, but it changes and progresses quite naturally into being Venus and Serena’s story over time, matching real life and how realistic it is for the kids to take charge of their own destinies after their parents work themselves brittle to help with the running start.

In addition to Smith’s empathetic performance, Aunjanue Ellis plays Brandy, the girls’ mother, who is one of the stealth surprises of the film in how she also gets a lot of screen time and urgency. As you would expect, Richard isn’t the only parent who is overprotective and has a plan to stick to. When Venus eventually does get a prestigious tennis coach, Serena (the younger sister) gets sort of left behind. But it’s Brandy who recognizes her role in helping build Serena up herself so she can one day compete at the same level or even higher.

One thing the film doesn’t spend too much time on, and almost to its detriment, is the competitive dynamic between Venus and Serena. There is some of it, to be certain, and the film does establish the infamous line from Richard, in which he claims Venus will be the first, but Serena will be the best. The film is likely trying to avoid the Venus vs. Serena angle on purpose because so much of it has already been a media circus, and because this is also recent history, with most of the film taking place in the 90s; it is smart to glean newer, less publicized material from this true story instead of pandering to the low-hanging fruit.

As I mentioned before, there are some who will reject the film immediately because of how it in some ways vindicates Richard’s controversial parenting style, which the film does address at times. There’s a troublesome neighbor who sees what he and his wife are doing to push these children so hard and considers it abusive. There’s also an essential scene between Richard and Brandy that finally gets to the heart of why he has this plan in the first place. Is it for the betterment of these two or is it for his own ego? And what does it mean for his other children?

What I like and may even love about the movie, even though some critics will sniff at this being over-simplistic, is that it essentially admits Richard is guilty of both. Rather than position Richard as being right all along and infallible, when you break down the structure of the film and what really happens, there are more than enough moments when he’s proven wrong before or after he’s proven right. Even if you disagree with his methods, you can recognize the motivation behind his actions, so he remains sympathetic throughout.

But again, I expect some will walk away from this frustrated at how the film focuses so much on the father perhaps at the daughters’ expense. And I’ll admit I’m also conflicted on how the film handles their story. On the one hand, you can sense the real-life Williams sisters wanting to pay respect to their parents for doing so much to open these doors for them to walk through. On the other hand, the film does struggle at times with that balance of Venus and Serena really being the ones who made this happen and broke those barriers through their sheer determination and hard work.

It’s not a clear-cut conversation with one right answer because the film does stress their talent and willpower well outside their father’s influence, it just happens later in the film and can easily be glossed over if you sit around stewing in what you wish the movie was instead of what it’s trying to arrive at.

It’s not often a film with this much crowd-pleasing power also has this much to chew on and think through, and I’ll admit I’m a big sucker for tennis movies in general, so I went into this truly hoping for the best. And I do think I got a terrific movie, even with those high expectations setting me up for disappointment. The film was directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, who made the celebrated 2018 Sundance favorite, Monsters and Men, and the less successful Joe Bell, but King Richard really is where this director and screenwriter, Zach Baylin, have managed to strike gold and maybe Oscar gold, eventually, as this is probably a lock for a Best Picture nomination.

Even with all the flaws to consider, and there are certainly plenty to point out, I’m simply too enthusiastic about the overall product to get bogged down in what doesn’t work or might be up for more discussion. It’s not the greatest of all time, but for some it will easily be a grand slam.

King Richard opens in theaters on November 19 through Warner Bros. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max for 30 days.

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