Biographical drama King Richard tells the story of a father determined to write his daughters Venus and Serena into history. Training on tennis courts in Compton, Richard Williams shapes the girls’ unyielding commitment and keen intuition. Together, the Williams family defies seemingly insurmountable odds and the prevailing expectations laid before them.

King Richard offers a strong, surprising screenplay

Insisting your kids enjoy the carefree time of childhood versus allowing them to fully embrace their extraordinary talents. Protecting your loved ones versus trusting them to make the best choices for themselves. Having humility versus being confident. King Richard tackles all of these complicated dichotomies, and it does so in a nuanced — and joyful — way, making it one of the most breathtaking, heartwarming films of the year.

The very nature of King Richard is somewhat risky. After all, when you’re telling the story of Venus and Serena, wouldn’t it make more sense to center them in the story? And why span a few years during their childhoods instead of allowing us to see them after they’ve become household names?

Will Smith, who also served as a producer on the film, recognized there are thousands of ways to tell this story, but noted that screenwriter Zach Baylin honed in on the energy they wanted to tap into: one of family and love. And that is clear in every frame.

King Richard is not your ordinary sports movie or celebrity biopic (though the tennis scenes were expertly edited and the actors flawlessly embodied those they were portraying) — instead, it unfolds like a compelling slice-of-life drama that just happens to include two of the greatest names in sports history.

Excellent performances across the board

There’s no doubt that the main draw of King Richard is Will Smith, who gives an award-worthy performance in the titular role. Smith said in a press conference that he sees Richard like a lion and that his protective nature both drew him to the part and inspired him in his own parenting. This connection he felt is evident in his performance. He plays Richard as a fiercely loving father while still fully embracing his flaws, giving us a fascinating portrait of a man constantly trying to do right by his children. The decision to have him be the grounding force the film orbits around is an unexpected yet highly effective one.

In less capable hands, this movie could easily fall into awards bait territory or feel simply like a star vehicle for Smith. However, the combination of Baylin’s layered script, Smith’s passionate performance, and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s skillful direction instead make it an understated film that grapples with fresh themes without ever sacrificing its heart and authenticity.

It helps that Smith is surrounded by a plethora of phenomenal co-stars. Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal both shine as tennis coaches Paul Cohen and Rick Macci, playing the “straight men” to Richard’s eclectic, unorthodox self. 

And if Smith is the heart of the film, then Aunjanue Ellis — who plays Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, Richard’s wife — is the soul. Ellis mentioned it was important to her that it never felt like Brandy was simply in the sidelines, and it shows. She breathes so much life into the character, and her presence is truly integral to the dynamic in the film. Her big scenes with Smith are riveting, but it’s her quieter moment with her children that struck me most.

Speaking of the children, I would be remiss not to talk about Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, the young actors who play Venus and Serena, respectively. I was completely blown away by both of them. They effortlessly disappear into their roles, masterfully showcasing the fire and passion Venus and Serena have for the sport in every scene. At just 15 and 14 years old, there’s no doubt they both have extremely bright futures ahead of them.

King Richard‘s authenticity elevates it

King Richard tells the story of the Williams family in a surprising, respectful, and beautiful way. Several members of the family served as producers and were actively on set during filming (including Venus, Serena, and their sister Isha), which shines through in how honest the movie feels. The attention to detail, bold storytelling techniques, and focus on warmth and love set this movie apart. It deserves every ounce of awards buzz it’s getting.

King Richard premieres in theaters November 19.