TIFF2012: Venus and Serena

A younger Venus and Serena Williams.

There’s so much more to sports than the numbers on the scoreboard. It’s just that televised matches – generally already being 3+ hour events – don’t have the time to delve into the backstory of the players, or the antics and rivalry that happens off the court/ice/field. Which is too bad, because to me, that’s the interesting part.

Venus and Serena is a documentary based on one year (2011) of following the sisters through tournaments, injuries, and training. There’s also the requisite celebrity commentary – from former President Bill Clinton (!?), among others – about the siblings and archival footage of their humble beginnings. The film seamlessly interweaves this material with scenes from the 2011 season, juxtaposing the sisters’ present success with their past promise, all to the tune of upbeat music by Wyclef John.

For a Williams newbie such as myself, the film was a treasure trove of trivia (Serena loves karaoke), a fascinating look into the difficult circumstances the pre-teen sisters trained in (they grew up in Compton and played on a tennis court with “broken glass everywhere” says one former coach), and an inside peek into their family dynamics (they have a lot of half-siblings). It’s a great primer on Venus and Serena, and a damn fine film.

I’m not sure how much of the story would be known to actual Williams fans (I.e. if you’ve watched one full match of theirs – that’s more than I have), but fans may get more out of it than I did by fleshing out the backstory to some of their more famous (and notorious) matches.

Sports fan or not, this a great doc.

Grade: A

Sidenote: Venus and Serena have since boycotted the film over its negative portrayal of their father. I would disagree with this assessment. Sure, he has an unorthodox private life – with several out-of-wedlock children with various women, and a new wife that’s probably thirty years his junior, but he’s an integral part of the story and comes off more as a lovable oddball rather than an obsessive creep.


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