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KING RICHARD
Credit: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

King Richard seems like an odd title at first for a film about the man who brought Venus and Serena Williams to the world. As does the fact that he would become the subject of a biopic before them at all — a queen-maker, maybe, but royalty in his own right? By coming at the story sideways though, Reinaldo Marcus Green's sprawling drama (which premiered this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival) manages to be both a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a flawed and deeply complicated man and the kind of classic-uplift sports movie that used to fill multiplexes once upon a time.

Will Smith, his back hunched and beard grizzled, is Richard, a sometime security guard and inveterate hustler determined to give his five daughters with wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) — there were also other children, by other mothers — the kind of education that can take them anywhere, or at least as far from their native Compton, California, as they want to go. He drills them on spelling and geography and daily affirmations; hard work and homework are the rule. More than anything, though, he wants them to play tennis — an improbable if not impossible idea in a place where the courts are cracked, the nets are ragged, and the volatility of South Central Los Angeles regularly seeps over the chain-link fence.

Richard sees a particular promise in Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) that he believes can make them world champions, the Jordans and Alis of their era. But tennis is a money game — six figures on gear and training and transportation to even begin to compete on the junior circuit that's considered the only viable path to the pros. So the undauntable Richard hunts down the right people and haunts them until he finds the few who will agree to help: at first Tony Goldwyn's brusque Paul Cohen, who helped bring John McEnroe and Pete Sampras to glory, and later famed coach Rick Macci (a great, anxious Jon Bernthal, in some kind of wedged bowl haircut and shorts even tinier than Smith's).

Rick agrees to move the whole family to his idyllic academy in Florida, but he can't make Richard — brash, blustery, and devoted to a long-range game plan only he understands — abide by his ideas for them, or anyone else's. That willfulness can be crushing for the kids, who don't understand why they're being held back from the game by the same dad who taught them to love it, and for Brandy too, who has sublimated so much of herself to support him. Smith lets his Richard be as ornery and outrageous and sometimes outright unlikable as the real man could be, a reflexive contrarian and showman who often sucked up all the oxygen in the room and didn't mind answering a question he didn't like with a long blast of flatulence. But there's enough care and backstory in Zach Baylin's script to give layers to those contradictions, and real tenderness between him and his family.

About those girls: Sidney and Singleton are tremendous as Venus and Serena, even if the movie doesn't strictly belong to them, their innate sweetness and easy naturalism a bright, dynamic foil to Richard's rules and dogmas. The tennis, too, when real matches finally come into play, can be thrilling. Green (who made the small, affecting 2018 indie Monsters and Men and this year's little-seen Joe Bell) hasn't reinvented the underdog wheel, but he has made something fresh out of the familiar — a smart reminder that when a story is told well it can hit all the beats we know, and still somehow surprise us. Grade: B+

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