Venus and Serena: Toronto Review

The long-reigning queens of the power serve make for lively documentary fodder, but the filmmakers too rarely get beneath the surface story.

Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, John McEnroe and Chris Rock are among those paying tribute to tennis greats the Williams sisters.

TORONTO -- Examining the pro-tennis sibling dynamos who have broken barriers for African-American women athletes, Venus and Serena is an engaging portrait that wins the game and perhaps the set, but not the match. Director-producers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major have a sports documentarian’s dream material in the Williams sisters, charting their upbringing, training and more than a decade of championship triumphs with slick efficiency. But despite its focus on a year of personal and professional difficulty, the film lacks intimacy, rarely getting inside the subjects’ heads.

Physical access was clearly not a problem in this detailed chronicle of the 2011 tennis season. A turbulent one for the duo, it was marked by Serena’s battle to recover from a pulmonary embolism and Venus’ struggle with a debilitating autoimmune deficiency. Indicating that Baird, Major and editor Sam Pollard were finetuning right down to the wire, the film ends with the sisters' gold medal in doubles at the London Olympics this summer, on top of Serena’s singles gold a day earlier.

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That’s a ready-made narrative – a story of resilience and victory in the face of adversity, in a punishing sport with a notoriously short career span for most players at that level. But despite a more than serviceable recap of their origins and rise to fame, and the pulsing accompaniment of Wyclef Jean’s music, a robustly satisfying story fails to take shape.

Recent reports during Toronto indicate that the sisters have withdrawn their support for the film over concerns about the way it portrays their father and longtime coach, Richard Williams.

He certainly emerges here as a uniquely driven and driving force. Mapping out the girls’ futures almost before they could pick up a racket, he saw them as a way to make money and “raise up the family” out of their humble Compton, California, environment. The $12 million Reebok promotional deal that followed Venus’ first pro championship win was a significant step in that direction.

While former coach Rick Macci maintains that he was shoved aside and not given credit as an important figure during key years in their training, the sisters shrug off the claim, insisting that it was their father who molded them as athletes. Their mother, Oracene Price, appears to have been equally influential, giving them self-possession, confidence and a bold sense of style.

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In one telling moment, Price is asked what advice she would give her ex-husband’s new wife. “Run,” she flatly replies. That and other moments such as the appearance of an unexplained son from another of Richard’s relationships, hint at a more complicated story than the one being somewhat superficially told here.

The filmmakers enlist a handful of big-name talking heads, among them Bill Clinton, Gay Talese, Anna Wintour, Arnon Milchan and Chris Rock, who recalls the shock of seeing the two new stars emerge out of the predominantly white world of professional tennis: “I remember the braids; they were like black-black, not country-club black.”

John McEnroe also weighs in, comparing Serena’s controversial outbursts over questionable umpire calls to his own famous explosions on the court. The documentary makes the case that underlying racism and sexism have made the diva reputation stick to Serena far more than it would to other, similarly volatile professional athletes. Williams herself amusingly addresses the issue by telling reporters at a press conference that she has moved on and they should too.

However, despite no shortage of up-close-and-personal time with both sisters, as subjects they remain at a distance. A pattern is traced of them spurring each other on as rivals but also as a mutual support team, with Venus, in particular, pushing Serena forward. Their relentless motivation and self-discipline are evident during visibly painful physical therapy and training sessions. In a significant statement, Serena admits, “I hate losing more than I like winning.”

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But beyond generic impressions concerning the hunger for victory and continued success, the documentary reveals surprisingly little, indicating that it’s perhaps too sanctioned to be entirely effective. We get enough glimpses to know that the Williams sisters are vibrant, funny, determined women, but seeing them goof off with a karaoke machine during rare downtime is not the same as getting to know them.

Alluding to the difficulty of finding suitable dating partners, they point up the unresolved contradiction between the warriors they were raised to be and the submissive wife role that’s expected of them according to their Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. This and other insights would seem an ideal segue to more probing questioning. But either the filmmakers declined to go there or the sisters set strict boundaries. Perhaps inevitably when dealing with subjects who evince such a strong sense of family, the frustrating impression remains of an inquiry stuck on the outside peering in.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production company: M+M Films
Director-producers: Maiken Baird, Michelle Major
Executive producer: Alex Gibney
Directors of photography: Cliff Charles, Rashidi Harper, Stephanie Johnes
Music: Wyclef Jean
Editor: Sam Pollard
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 99 minutes

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