The term “stage parents” almost always has a negative connotation. They’re people who push their kids hard to succeed in a particular field, often one where at least one parent failed to achieve his or her dreams. And that overbearing nature extends to anyone who might get in their way, even if that person is trying to help their child succeed, as the parent believes only he or she knows the right path to success.
King Richard chronicles the rise of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton), but it’s mostly about their father, Richard (Will Smith). Richard believed so strongly that his two daughters were going to be great that he, along with his wife, Brandi (Aunjanue Willis), groomed them that way almost from birth. His monomaniacal pursuit was considered all the more outrageous given that the family lived in Compton, with regular access to only a rundown tennis court in a neighborhood park.
As the film shows, though, there was no length that he wouldn’t go to and no door he wouldn’t knock on to reach his goal. The family’s path leads them through some of the top tennis coaches in the world, including Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), but it’s clear that Richard is always the one in charge.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, the film is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways. Like many sports movies, it’s not really about tennis. It’s a story about a family (Brandi, aka Oracene Price, had three daughters from a previous marriage) that has each other’s backs in good times and bad. It also has all the markings of a classic underdog story, showing how much they had to overcome just to be given a chance by the cloistered tennis society.
It’s no real spoiler to say that the film ends at the “beginning,” before either sister knows real success, which is the perfect way to frame the story. The titles and Grand Slam championships that Venus and Serena earned are well-known history, but what happened before they became truly famous is equally, if not more, interesting. This approach also allows non-sports fans to enjoy the story just as much as tennis fanatics.
If there’s one qualm to be had with the film, it’s that it seems to sand down Richard’s hard edges. He’s shown to be pushy but never belligerent, disagreeing but never disagreeable. While only those close to the real man know for sure, it strains believability that a man as persistent and domineering as he would never come across as unfriendly.
Some may also complain that even though they’re in almost every scene of the movie, we never get to know Venus and Serena all that well. And while it’s true that they’re mostly shown as dedicated tennis players and daughters, the film’s focus on their tween and teenage years doesn’t allow for information about their professional years, where they would become multi-faceted individuals.
Smith only occasionally dips his toes into serious roles, but he shows again here how good he can be when he goes all in. Ellis is fiery, fierce, and fantastic as Brandi, outshining Smith on more than one occasion. Sidney and Singleton are relative newcomers, but they prove themselves to be not only good actors, but believable tennis players. It should be noted that the tennis scenes are another of the film’s strong points; there’s no obvious movie trickery going on to make the actors look better than they actually are.
The story in King Richard would be inspirational even if Venus and Serena Williams didn’t go on to become the champions they are. The perseverance of Richard, Brandi, and their entire family is admirable, although it’s also something few others could emulate.
King Richard opens in theaters and on HBO Max on November 19.