For a romantic comedy most of us would consider a step back in the quality stakes, but for a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams it manages to be stylish and engaging with what could be a slight edge over the others.
Despite directing for the first time, Peter Brown hits the ball out of the park with his third feature, hitting on a similar combination of slick visual and narrative elements to 2008’s Monster’s Ball – a smooth but flawed drama about an African-American mother and her daughter that attracted even more controversy than the Williams film.
The opening scenes of Venus and Serena as they share a ‘steak’ dinner aboard a late-night cruise ship are undoubtedly delightful, with Jenifer Lewis’ bon viveur hostess refusing to let any traditional line of questioning get in the way of her guests. This she makes up for with her verbal skills – more so than the lack of any grand gestures. And what with all those naked starlets who have stepped out of a glass of champagne on a yacht before, she’s rather spoiled.
As they launch into another incident over American’s Next Top Model show, Kayla Tweed is a much-needed change of pace, glowering around and trying to hold it together despite her medication problems. The drama at the event from the rapper Montana isn’t over, and Tweed’s character will be sharing some strong screen time alongside Costaina Johnson-Purcell’s Toni, who is so concerned with the status of Tweed and her child, that she confides in her that her husband is abusive. Telling anyone really isn’t advisable, but Becca Tobin helps keep a fragile teenage girl from drowning in circumstance.
There’s a bit of it that feels more like an awkward afterschool special: a teen girl and her posse on a road trip for the summer, which ends up with the hard-partying travellers making a pit stop in a safe fishing town. There are nice, subtle touches of wit about the shenanigans, with Johnson-Purcell and Tobin playing off each other perfectly.
It would be unfair to single out any particular performances, since it’s a crowd-pleasing and consistent piece of work – and that’s not to say they don’t deserve the praise. All the women offer intriguing and credible personalities, with Alexandra Shipp a revelation as the feisty Serena, showing a new maturity and expanding on her natural talent that finally lets this sympathetic movie achieve its potential. For anyone of a certain age, it’s fascinating to see how far she has come since her late-’90s heyday – as well as ensuring that the film perfectly sums up the character’s star quality.
Venus and Serena runs for 98 minutes, but doesn’t ignore the familiar – there are scenes like a scene-stealing dinner scene between Serena and American singer Sean Kingston, and an interlude that starts to take off after Venus sees Serena pass her at the hairdressers. Indeed, much is made of the heavy presence of stepmother and manager, Oracene Price (Jessie Usher), but is portrayed with genuine compassion by the visiting Anika Noni Rose. It’s supported by an ever-exciting, exuberant soundtrack, from some promising influences like Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg and DJ Jazzy Jeff, to a refreshing French girl group called Lala.
Venus and Serena is a genuinely impressive performance, a classy and thought-provoking act of reconciliation, between a hard-living pair at the forefront of American sports. No, we’re not won over by its unrelentingly positive take on a love story, but rather that it gets the chance to do so.