I have be honest, I had no desire to watch “King Richard.” I’m not really a tennis fan, my knowledge of Venus and Serena Williams is peripheral at best, and frankly Will Smith isn’t a box office sell for me. Not to say that he’s a bad actor (he’s not), I just find him to have recently taken up the “I’m Will Smith in everything” mantel in his projects. Surprising me the most is just how wrong I was.
Everything from the superb script, solid direction, and brilliant performances set “King Richard” apart from other sports biopics. It somehow manages to hit all the classic beats of an underdog story while still making everything feel fresh and unique. The film is packed with heart and hope, adversity and perseverance, success and failure. Everything about this film works, and “King Richard” is sure to drum up some Academy Award nominations come awards season. Deservedly so, too, as “King Richard” is fantastic and a true feel good sports movie of the year.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men,” “Joe Bell“) from a script by first-time feature film writer Zach Baylin, “King Richard” tells the story of the Williams family, particularly Richard Williams raising his daughters Venus and Serena to become tennis champions. Richard has a plan (a 78 page plan written before the girls were born, to be exact) to make his daughters into great athletes, and his ego and pressure simultaneously push the girls to victory but may also rip their family to shreds. “King Richard” is a much more nuanced sports biopic, choosing to focus on the family and their struggles together instead of just the obstacles on the road to success.
For being a first attempt at screenwriting, Baylin’s work as an assistant, property foreman and set dresser seems to have paid off in “King Richard.” The script is masterfully tight and focused, and avoids the pitfalls of being just another movie about successful athletes. Though it smooths out some of the rough edges surrounding the real life Richard Williams, the film never shies away from painting Richard as a polarizing figure. He is bull headed, egotistical, and sometimes obnoxiously desperate to ensure that nothing deviates from his plan. The film may not go in depth to the real man, but captures enough of his antics and well documented presence on and off the court to avoid giving him the hero treatment. Likewise, Green’s direction is on point here, breathing fresh life and characterization into each and every role. Green creates a true to life world, both on and off the tennis court and examines the lives of this family with care and expertise. He also creates terrific tension during tennis matches, giving the viewer the illusion that everyone really can play tennis. He avoids quick cuts and choppy camera work to avoid showing that his actors can’t play for shit, and instead goes out of his way to make matches that feel very real.
Behind the camera, “King Richard” is expertly put together. In front of the camera, Will Smith as Richard absolutely shines. Smith’s performance is a reminder of just how good and versatile he can actually be when he wants to. He completely disappears here, becoming Richard Williams in every single frame. Smith also manages to bring likability to a rather unlikeable character, drawing from a deep sense of love for his children as motivation instead of just being an overbearing, out of touch, borderline abusive father. He may push his children too hard, and needs to be reigned in from time to time, but Smith portrays a man who truly wants the best for his children, and though his plan may not be the best for everyone, it comes from a genuine love for his children instead of some kind of resentment (like many other sports type films).
“King Richard” is Will Smith at his best, and we are all the better for watching this truly award worthy performance. Saniyya Sidney as young Venus is equally powerful, delivering a quiet, nuanced performance of a young girl bursting at the seams with emotions and desire for greatness hidden behind a humble, young smile. It is a truly wonderful performance from such a young girl, and I am inclined to follow her career after a showing like this.
Honestly, everyone is top notch here, and I’d be here all day complimenting the entire cast one by one, so we’ll just highlight one more stand out: Jon Bernthal as coach Ricki Macci. Believe it or not, Bernthal is the comedic relief in “King Richard.” Crazy right? But he sheds his tough guy persona for a charming, affable coach who butts heads with Richard constantly but genuinely loves these young girls and wants the best for them. I truly hope Bernthal gets more opportunities to expand his horizons here, because he is wonderful is this more light hearted role.
Ok I lied, it would be unfair to not at least mention Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother, Oracene Price. She is the glue that’s holding the entire family together, and Ellis is incredibly emotive even in silence. Her nuanced performance is defined by her consistently wrestling with her desire to support her children but the frustrations of her husband’s plan and stubbornness. There is a poignant, emotional moment where Price’s bottled up frustrations spill over into an argue between her and Richard, and it is one of the most powerful scenes in the film that is elevated by simply stellar performances.
The choice to focus on the family, namely the relationship between Venus, Serena, and Richard is one of the many things that sets “King Richard” apart from its sports biopic peers. As stated, it may not fully explore the complexity of the real life Richards, but it comes pretty close and closer than most other attempts at similarly controversial characters. “King Richard” feels gritty and earnest, and never falls victim to the Hollywood gloss over that often comes with these kinds of films. All of the characters feel real instead of actors pretending to play exaggerated versions of real life people. Baylin’s script and Green’s execution may be focused, but their lens is wide when it comes to characterization. Everyone in “King Richard” feels like fully realized individuals, and despite the stripped down story hitting all of the normal biopic beats, it doesn’t FEEL like it. There isn’t a single caricature in “King Richard,” something you don’t realize how often you see in these types of films until one comes along that doesn’t have them.
“King Richard” is that movie, packed with powerful performances, a heartwarming story about family and hope, and ya, some tennis matches just to round out the portfolio. I’m not really even sure I have any criticisms, and if I do they’re nitpicking at best. No film is perfect, but “King Richard” is a beautiful piece of cinema that is better than you might expect. It is more than accessible even if you aren’t a fan of the sport, and even if your knowledge of the Williams’ sisters is a little more than they exist. “King Richard” is such a well made film that you could come into it completely blind and leave feeling connected and emotionally invested in the story and the characters.
I wasn’t really looking forward to watching this one, but I am so glad I did. “King Richard” is a wonderful movie going experience, one that you shouldn’t miss out on and I highly recommend.
Rating: 4.5 out 5 Stars
“King Richard” is currently streaming on HBO Max.