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Film review: 'Venus and Serena'

The documentary "Venus and Serena" tells the tale of the two tennis star sisters, but fails to delve deep into what makes them work.

Serena and Venus Williams are the subjects of the doc called (of course) "Venus and Serena" Caption: Getty Images Serena and Venus Williams are the subjects of the doc called (of course) "Venus and Serena"
Caption: Getty Images

‘Venus and Serena’
Directors: Maiken Baird and Michelle Major
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

The documentary profile “Venus and Serena” was likely pitched as boasting unprecedented access to the tennis stars — as though that was all a film required to be minimally useful. It’s not clear whether the Williamses are any more upfront about themselves than they have been in untold interviews. It’s not even apparent if the end product, heading for theatrical distribution and VOD, is any more comprehensive than the untold television profiles. This is pure Wikipedia documentary filmmaking, plowing through Venus and Serena’s conjoined story, doing some light delving into certain issues and leaving fans knowing only slightly more than they did before.

As you can learn elsewhere, the Williams sisters were tennis prodigies coached into superhuman strength by an absurdly dedicated, deeply protective father Richard. Venus was the first to attract major attention, going pro at 14. It was then discovered that Serena, one year younger, was about as legendary. Richard is an imposing and unknowable character, as cagey as he is quick to overly-defend his daughters. (His cursing-out of an overly-pesky journalist when Venus was a 14 year old braggart is enjoyably questionable.) He remains a mystery, as do his daughters, whose unusual childhood may have produced, as with so many talented kids thrust into the limelight at an early age, psychological trauma. Or it might not have. There’s no way from watching “Venus and Serena,” which fails to get its subjects to open up much beyond the superficial, whether to know for sure.

Even if one doesn’t want to delve into their psyches, there’s always plenty of other topics. The Williamses have long been the subject of unusual treatment, by the media and otherwise, over issues of class, race and gender. “Venus and Serena” goes somewhat into that: Serena’s issues with temper, relatively minor compared to other players, is shown to be exaggerated by the media and the tennis world alike. Even as it critiques this treatment, the film adds to it, showing arguments and tiffs seemingly filmed on the fly, as though these altercations — light and often TMI — weren’t the norm among highly stressed athlete celebrities. As with a lot of largely expository doc profiles, “Venus and Serena” will be useful largely to those who know very little about the sisters, and to those who know almost everything but are hungry for a few random trivia scraps. It would take a more fearless documentarian to give you something more.

 
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