What could be more improbable than the linked triumph of Venus and Serena Williams?
African-American sisters born 15 months apart, raised in the gritty environs of Compton, Calif., these women not only took on the genteel, predominantly white sport of tennis, but they also dominated it in an unprecedented way, winning a remarkable 21 Grand Slam titles between them. And that's only in singles.
Though anyone who cares at all about sports or popular culture knows the Williams sisters' names, not to mention their domineering father, Richard, getting a glimpse of exactly who these women are on a personal level has been harder to come by.
"Venus and Serena," co-directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, documentary production veterans taking on their first directing work, successfully reveals these private faces in a fascinating if occasionally disjointed way.
Gaining the sisters' trust and granted extensive access to them in their off hours, Baird and Major provide an intimate, up-close and personal portrait of the women, close enough psychologically to be twins, who enjoy karaoke, hanging out and being there for each other.
The filmmakers follow the women for the 2011 season, which was fraught for both because of health issues. Venus has to deal with a major hip injury followed by a bout of autoimmune disorder, and Serena is hospitalized with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and gets close to despair at the thought that she might never be able to play again. The physically grinding nature of tennis as well as the inevitability of aging in an athlete are issues for both women at this stage of their careers.
"Venus and Serena" intercuts this vérité footage with a look back at their lives via interviews and archival material. This back-and-forth has a scattershot feeling, making it difficult at times to focus on the full arcs of the intertwined careers, and the film occasionally goes off on unexpected tangents. But overall, this is a story as involving as you'd imagine it would be.
Though "Venus and Serena" does not neglect the key role of the women's mother, Oracene Price, the film is a case study of the power of a demanding, domineering father who insisted that first Venus and then Serena devote their lives to tennis body and soul.
"I was just brainwashed," Venus says smiling, talking about beginning in the sport at age 4. "It's just part of my life, wrapped up in who I am."
Irascible, fanatically controlling yet somehow caring, the senior Williams is shown simply being himself both then and now, for instance, browbeating a Wimbledon club photographer in 2011 for taking what he considered to be unauthorized photos.
The most memorable clip in that regard is an outtake from an ABC News interview of Venus in 1990, when she was 14. Unhappy with the direction things were taking, the father steps in and chews out the interviewer something fierce, reminding him that the person he is talking to is only 14, something he himself seems to forget from time to time.
In Richard Williams' master plan, Venus was supposed to be the tennis superstar, but younger sister Serena, determined not to be merely "a statistic," was not to be denied.
"I've always wanted everything Venus had," she says, and both sisters say it is Serena who is the more natural fighter. "I hate losing more than I like winning," the younger sibling says, talking candidly about the fiercest side of her personality, an angry-all-the-time persona she calls Laquanda.
"Venus and Serena" has a bit of footage about the sisters' dating lives, as well as the complexities of their father's romantic relationships, but this material isn't as well-integrated into the rest of the film as it might be.
What is clear, over and above everything else, is that these women, who are often in need of a best friend, have it in each other.
Serena and Venus
• Not rated.
• Directors: Maiken Baird, Michelle Major
• Appearances: Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Richard Williams.
• Running time: 99 minutes.