Battle of the Sexes isn’t a movie about tennis, it’s about coming out and winning

This article contains minor spoilers for Battle of the Sexes.

In Battle of the Sexes, there’s a sensual scene starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King — in a hair salon.

As the hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), lovingly and intimately cuts Billie Jean’s hair, Billie Jean’s breath hitches. The camera never wavers from Stone’s poignant performance, realizing her feelings for Marilyn as Billie Jean. But she’s married to a man, and she’s never been with a woman before.

This dawning realizing is the through line of the movie.

Battle of the Sexes is the new film from filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It tells the story of the second and most famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Stone).

However, while the tennis may be exciting — and it is — it’s the story of Billie Jean King’s coming out, both sexually and as a feminist activist, that carries the emotional weight.

Even Dayton admitted this: ‘We love tennis, don’t get me wrong. But it was the love story that drove us to make this.’

It may surprise some how few scenes Stone and Carell share. Or how long it takes the movie to get to the famed match. This is to the film’s credit, though. It doesn’t rush to the big event — it realizes it’s telling the story of real people, with personal struggles, and exploring those within the context of the match.

Carell is good in the movie (as he always is), but this is Stone’s story to tell.

Overall, both the film and Stone lend King’s story incredible respect and empathy.

Playing a real person has its own set of challenges. Stone plays King with such humanity, though, without making her a caricature in any way. It’s by far one of her most notable roles, especially coming off her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land. She is poised, strong, self-assured, and vulnerable all at once.

In standing up for the rights of female athletes, Billie Jean is never more confident. As she challenges Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, a leader of professional tennis tours and a doubter of female athletes, she blazes with glory. She knows she’s risking her career, and the careers of the women who join her, but she doesn’t back down.

Her sexuality is trickier to navigate…..

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