Opting for inspiration over insight, Venus and Serena is a starry-eyed pop doc that cannot transcend its scattershot, for-fans-only filmmaking. Capturing the tennis-champ twosome of Venus and Serena Williams during a nine-month period in 2011, a volatile year full of injuries and reflections, directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major attempt to capture a double portrait and contextualize the significant ascendance of “two black girls from Compton” rising to the top of a sport historically dominated by privileged, white players. This mission isn’t always clear, however, even with the much-needed help of fantastic archival footage, as Baird and Major seem more influenced by reality shows than journalism, occasionally touting Venus and Serena’s celebrity over their achievements.
Raised and trained by their demanding and über-protective father, Richard, Venus and Serena were groomed for greatness from a young age. This pressure and hubris wasn’t for naught, as proven by the sisters’ ability to break records along with racial barriers. Two thousand eleven finds them at a crossroads, as Serena deals with her hot-headed reputation on the court even amid victory while Venus sits on the sidelines, recovering from injuries. Venus’s health complications worsen and she’s diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease which causes her to experience joint pain and uncomfortable swelling; she’s mostly forced to stay at home, spending her days playing with a karaoke microphone instead of a tennis racquet. The chance for gravitas is present, and the quote “the tragedy of every athlete is age” is bandied about, but Venus and Serena lacks the focus and cohesion to inform this catalytic moment in the aging athlete’s fluctuating career.
Baird and Major spend some time observing the sisters’ family tree, passively shaking it from the trunk instead of climbing it in order to pick its most fruitful details. Their mother and sisters are interviewed, and there are a few passing references to the complex situation with their father’s successive wives and extramarital children, but their private lives are obliquely confronted—eliding answers we’re purportedly being given, and leading to more questions that are never asked. This isn’t to say that Venus and Serena should have been more of an assault on their personal life, but what’s hinted at—even in a compassionate light—seems to merely dangle on the flimsy thesis of impassioned perseverity, as opposed to becoming synthesized to distill the sisters’ worldviews.
However, in rounding out Venus and Serena’s double-whammy supernova force, which leads to them becoming a multiplatform phenomenon, Baird and Major incidentally confirm a superficial agenda; as a result, the film resorts to talking-head madness, from Gay Talese waxing rhapsodically on their artistic spirits to Anna Wintour tossing off irrelevant observations on their fashion sense. The filmmakers even inquire about Serena’s romances, making her blush with mentions of her history with Brett Ratner and the plutonic flirtations with practicing partner Sascha. Venus and Serena’s twin-like dynamic is ubiquitous, but the details of their lives and struggles that aren’t as easily apparent become lost among the tabloid fodder and roll call of trophies won. Baird and Major uncontrollably volley back and forth from sister to sister, vacillating between soft-pedaled investigation of their lives and cute footage of the girls when they were young. Although the documentarians were given nearly full access to the sisters, Venus and Serena still suffers the fate of being overlong and only partially complete; it’s too earnest to be a pure puff piece, yet too cautious to be fully perceptive.