REVIEW

Review: The inspiring King Richard stars Will Smith as the father of the Williams tennis sisters

King Richard (M, 144 minutes)

4 stars

Opening in cinemas at the same time as the Australian Open is this scorching character study about the tennis luminaries Venus and Serena Williams.

Will Smith, right, in King Richard. Picture: Warner Bros

Will Smith, right, in King Richard. Picture: Warner Bros

With Will Smith as its star and lead performer, the film focuses mainly on their dad Richard.

Some might wonder why a film about two of the most brilliant women sportspersons in the world has to be about a man making them great, but usually behind every sporting success, there are the mums and dads who got up every morning at 5am to drive them to training. They're the pushy stage parents who make Rose from Gypsy or Joan from Mommie Dearest seem well-adjusted, but whose drive helps push their children to greatness.

But this is more of a family biography, with the characters of Richard (Smith) and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) sharing as much screen time as the young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), and that seems to be just fine with Venus and Serena themselves - they serve as Executive Producers on the film.

Richard has a plan for all of his five daughters, as future doctors and lawyers, and for his youngest two, a career in professional tennis. Richard has, in fact, written an elaborate 78-page plan for their careers and he and his wife have them training at the local tennis courts in Los Angeles's Compton whenever they can.

The family's unprecedented ascendence to sporting greatness is a product of unwavering belief, and the strength of Zach Baylin's screenplay is that belief manifests itself across his characters and in different ways.

Baylin is working in very familiar territory - we've all seen a dozen or more of these sporting biopics about talent overcoming adversity - but his thoughtful dialogue and wordplay and his choice of the moments in this family's lives to represent make this film a cut above the rest.

Compton in Los Angeles in the 1980s is a difficult place to be raising five daughters - the Rodney King arrest plays out in the background of the narrative - but the Williams parents have a strong belief and determination, and Richard has an incredible amount of hustle.

That hustle sees his girls recognised and invited onto the Junior Tennis circuit, Richard talks his way into high profile coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) taking on Venus, and eventually to star-maker Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), moving the whole family to Florida to train at his academy.

But Richard observes the awful behaviour of those unsportsmanlike stage parents and bratty athletes and he won't allow his girls to debut too soon, or to go unsupervised (stable-make Jennifer Capriati's arrest on marijuana possession features) holding them back from the Juniors while other stars burn out at a young age.

We all know where this film is going - particularly to Venus's five wins at Wimbledon - but the film is equally about the drive Richard and Oracene instilled in Serena, often existing in her sister's shadow but paying attention to every move along the way.

A scene from King Richard. Picture: Warner Bros

A scene from King Richard. Picture: Warner Bros

As a viewing experience, this is a positive and affirming two-and-a-bit hours and would be just the right film to take your kids to with its strong message of supportive family and strong morals.

I'm so bored with those endless self-aggrandising America football films where you're subjected to play after play. If you're not a huge tennis fan, there are a few scenes of pivotal games in the girls' early career but the game itself isn't the film's focus.

Smith steps out of his familiar look and mannerisms and disappears into this man, looking physically bigger and physically broken, walking with difficulty and yet with a braggadocio swagger at the same time. He is brilliant and deserving of his recent Golden Globe Award.

Bavlin might give him the words to say, but when Smith serves a reproachful backhand to the advertising executives who imply the girls' success is "incredible" because of their race and background, you want to punch the air. In a later scene, the weight of that inevitable success, when it does come, and what it will mean for all the other little girls of colour, is delivered in a very moving moment between father and daughter.

Something of a king-maker himself, Smith the producer assembles some interesting behind-the-scenes talent whose prior work has shown promise but for who this high-profile film represents the chance to shine, notably indie director Reinaldo Marcus Green who serves up volley after volley of well-constructed moments building to a strong game.

Smith is probably a chance for an Oscar nomination this year, but it would be a tragedy if Ellis isn't recognised for her supporting role as mother and wife. She enjoys a particularly blistering soliloquy, levelling out the possibly overinflated ego of the husband she has supported every step along the way.

If I was the publicist who had "tennis" as my client this week, I'd be pointing everybody at this uplifting film that reminds us of the democratic power of love and talent to build community.

This story Will Smith serves up an inspiring story first appeared on The Canberra Times.