“Venus and Serena” is an engaging, warts-and-all look at the Williams sisters, who have dominated the professional tennis circuit for more than a decade, breaking ground for female and African-American athletes. The docu, from respected producers but first-time helmers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, world-preemed at the Toronto fest just after Serena won the U.S. Open for the fourth time, marking her 15th Grand Slam victory just days before her 31st birthday. Of interest to more than just sports fans, the pic should earn further fest outings and specialty engagements before segueing into robust broadcast and ancillary business.Given that the siblings, born a mere 15 months apart, have proved the focus of avid media attention since they were tween racket-wielding prodigies from the rough courts of Compton, Calif., the docu doesn’t provide any real revelations. But the footage of them together and apart, in the spotlight and behind closed doors, gives a far better sense of the sisters as sisters — and as human beings living their lives — than do reams of sports reportage and Internet celebrity gossip. The helmers follow the women through 2011, a year in which both battled painful life- and career-threatening health problems and media controversy, and into the 2012 tennis season, concluding with Serena’s fifth Wimbledon victory, a Brit grass-court record that now matches her sister’s. They also deploy ample and well-chosen archival footage that traces the athletes’ meteoric rise through the pro tennis ranks, and the constant excitement — sometimes tinged with criticism and resentment — they engendered. Interviews with their now-divorced parents — the Svengali-like, controlling Richard and the down-to-earth Oracene — who still serve as their coaches, as well as commentary from fans, including former President Bill Clinton, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, comedian Chris Rock and longtime tennis champion and former oncourt bad boy John McEnroe, provide perspective on the sisters’ courage, determination, sense of family and race, and strength to fight on in the face of adversity. Although Venus and Serena are now pushing the limits of longevity in a body-punishing sport that requires extreme levels of fitness and strength, both maintain that they want to continue as professional athletes into their 40s. Off the court, the sisters are shown to be extremely close, sharing a Florida home and staff for part of the year, as well as many of the same interests; treatment of topics such as their lovelives is more discreet than revealing, with Serena more talkative than Venus about preferences and experiences. The solid, well-paced production package boasts an appropriately triumphal score from Wyclef Jean, who appeared with Venus in an episode of the Sundance channel series “The Iconoclasts.”
An M+M Films production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, NYC.) Produced by Maiken Baird, Michelle Major. Executive producer, Alex Gibney. Directed, written by Maiken Baird, Michelle Major.
Camera (color/B&W, DV), Cliff Charles, Rashidi Harper, Stephanie Johnes, Henry Adebonojo, Maryse Alberti, Jeff Burson, Chris Dapkins, Kerwin Detracy Devonish, AJ Fielder, Wolfgang Held, Ronan Killeen, Stephen Kazmierski, Salvador Bolivar Madera, Will Miller, Slane Roman, Mark Carey, James Clenaghan, Brent Crockett; editor, Sam Pollard; music, Wyclef Jean; sound (Dolby Digital), Eric Moorman, David Hocs, Andre Logan, Caleb Mose, Paul Reed, Mark Roy, Bart Bee; associate producer, Aimee deSimone; archival researcher, Sheila Maniar. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 13, 2012. Running time: 100 MIN.
Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Richard Williams, Oracene Williams, Isha Williams, Bill Clinton, Chris Rock, Sascha Bajin, John McEnroe, Anna Wintour, Gay Talese, Billie Jean King.