By Lynn Venhaus

Anyone’s journey on how we become who we are can be turned into a compelling narrative in the right hands, and while the remarkable life story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams is tailor-made for a Hollywood adaptation, not every inspiring sports champion transfers well to screen.

However, “King Richard” has the right blend of drama and action to be fascinating – and for 2 hours and 18 minutes, that’s quite an achievement.

Richard Williams developed a 78-page plan for his daughters, Serena and Venus, to become championship tennis players. The father coached the girls while he worked as a security guard, and they played on the public tennis court in their Compton​ neighborhood. They would become superstars and dominate the sport.

Making the sisters’ fierce taskmaster and protector father, Richard, the centerpiece was absolutely the right move – and hinges on a deftly modulated performance from Will Smith.

After a disappointing string of box office duds, Smith is back in championship acting form – not just a movie star cavorting in front of green screens. His masterful portrayal of the complicated and driven patriarch is his comeback to awards season discussion, and may result in his third Oscar nomination, not since “The Pursuit of Happyness” in 2006.

He nearly disappears into the obsessively focused dad role wanting a better life for his children, molding his kids through methods he conceived, abrasive about status differentials and always being on the outside looking in as a black man in America. He nailed Richard’s dialect (he grew up in Louisiana) and his shape, gaining weight to physically mimic a big, strong guy.

Richard’s tennis-loving daughters Venus and Serena were eager pupils – and dreamers. Under his tutelage, they learned how to develop minds of a champion, not just the exceptional athleticism.

Young actresses portraying the sisters easily win us over – Saniyya Sidney, 15, as eldest Venus, the family’s first ​competitive and tournament-bound player, and Demi Singleton, 14, as powerful younger up-and-comer Serena.

They capably show us the hearts and minds of the prodigies-turned-pro, and it’s an interesting progression ​into ​to the trailblazers they became.

The sisters’ well-documented steely determination remains impressive. Any casual sports fan knows of the Williams girls’ impact on tennis. The numbers (shown over the credits while Beyonce sings “Be Alive”) are testament: a combined 30 Grand Slam titles, with Serena’s 23 singles titles only one behind the record, and four Olympic medals.

Screenwriter Zach Baylin concentrated in equal measures on family life and competition, and details rising star Venus’ advancement in the sport, leading to her turning pro at age 14. We don’t get past the mid-90s, with Oracene eventually divorcing Richard, ​the girls ​racking up big wins and endorsements, — and is minus any tennis feuds or controversies.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green adroitly unfolds the challenges the Williams faced from the streets of South Central L.A. to the pristine upper-echelon scenarios and the daunting majors. But he also works in the close-knit family’s playfulness.

The competitive tennis action is ​very​ realistic, making you feel you are getting an authentic depiction of tennis matches on courts in neighborhoods, country clubs, training camps and Grand Slam tournaments. Cinematographer ​Robert Elswit ​handled the challenges superbly – and the young actresses used the Williams’ trademark open stance.

Aunjanue Ellis excels as Oracene “Brandi” Williams, the supportive mom who holds her own with Richard and the kids, as there were ​her ​three other ​daughters Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea Price). The warm portrayal of the family unit adds a heartfelt element.

As larger-than-life tennis coach Rick Macci, Jon Bernthal lays on a thick New Jersey accent, an intense attitude, and is good at being exasperated by a tough Richard – as they are both hell-bent on doing it their way. Macci runs the tennis academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where the Williams’ trained after moving from California.

Tony Goldwyn portrays the practical Paul Cohen, who coached John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and other pre-eminent pros, as a straight shooter. Cohen was the first coach who took on the girls after their dad realized they had to reach another level.

Both Cohen and Macci recognized the Williams’ sisters’ talent and groomed them to become pros while tussling with their dad. Their perspective is necessary to key components in the coming-of-age story.

The crowd-pleasing movie has all the beats of a good sports biopic and ​features ​the acting skills to captivate.

“King Richard” reminds us of how much hard work goes into becoming professional athletes and the against-the-odds obstacles the Williams’ faced and overcame. It’s easy to forget all the doors that Venus and Serena opened for other girls – and this film honors their father’s vision.

“King Richard” is a 2021 sports biopic directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal. It is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference, and brief drug references and runs 2 hours, 18 minutes. It opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning Nov. 19. Lynn’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus
While it is tempting to learn more about the true story that made national news in 2013, hold off on any online searches until after watching “Joe Bell.” It will be a more satisfying experience the less you know about one father’s redemptive journey.

“Joe Bell” is the true story of a working-class father (Mark Wahlberg) who embarks on a solo walk across the U.S. to crusade about bullying after his gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) is tormented in their small town of LaGrande, Ore.

Wahlberg plays a gruff father who is loving but not necessarily understanding. He attempts to be more compassionate, revealing his pain and regrets.

And his ‘a-ha moment’ rings true. When he speaks about tolerance and accountability, his heart ultimately emerges. While a deeply flawed man, Bell’s mission is to help other parents by sharing his story, and possibly make things easier for kids living in places that might not be so accepting. He tells people “Understanding begins at home.”

Bell reflects on what he’s gone through and how he arrived at this point as he walks the highways and byways.

“Everybody’s against bullying, aren’t they?” he asks his wife.

In a sit-up-and-take note breakthrough performance, newcomer Reid Miller delivers a heart-wrenching portrait as Jadin Bell, a gay teen trying to live his life out loud without the harassment about “being different.”

A persecuted outsider who feels alone, his truths are universal, which is why the movie has such an emotional wallop. Miller will move you to tears — unless you have a heart of stone.

The thoughtful script, by Oscar winners Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who adapted “Brokeback Mountain,” is sensitive about the family dynamics and the closed-minded attitudes of a small town. It’s McMurtry’s last film, as he died earlier this year. The celebrated author wrote “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove.”

The screenwriters employ copious use of flashbacks to set up what vicious actions Jadin endured by cruel classmates, how his scruffy dad got to this juncture in his life, and what being an activist is teaching him.

They propel the movie forward without the usual sentimental beats, relying on the moving story to present itself.

Connie Britton is Joe’s wife Lola, who has her own issues, and is frustrated by Joe’s quick temper and rush to judgment. Their complicated relationship unfolds while he is on his cross-country trek, staying in cheap motels and sleeping in a tent along the way.

Maxwell Jenkins plays Jadin’s younger brother, Joseph, who is having a tough time as well.

The movie, originally called “Good Joe Bell” when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020, is just simply called “Joe Bell” now, no need to embellish. Its blunt message is the same.

Reinaldo Marcus Green directs with empathy. His past work includes “Monsters and Men” in 2018 and he will be coming out later this year with “King Richard,” starring Will Smith as the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

It is also an economical film, told in 90 minutes. Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret beautifully captures the panoramic vistas of America along Joe’s sojourn.

In a small but pivotal role, Gary Sinise plays a kindly sheriff who is also the father of a gay son. They bond over their initial resistance, and how they grew because of their experience.

The music is particularly mournful, composed by Brazilian Antonio Pinto. Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” aptly plays over the closing credits.

While there have been great strides in the past decade about LGBQT rights, humans still have a way to go, filmmakers point out. Jadin’s essay on people hating you for reasons you can’t change is a poignant plea for awareness.

Ignorance and immaturity will continue to be roadblocks but listening and learning will go a long way – that’s the message of “Joe Bell,” which comes across in a simple and straight-forward manner.

The gut punch is tailor-made for helping to create a kinder, gentler world. This is an important, if imperfect film, that sheds light on hard-earned truths.

“Joe Bell” is a 2020 true-life drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton and Gary Sinise. Rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying and runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes. It is available in theaters on July 23.
Lynn’s Grade: B+