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'Battle of the Sexes' serves up solid performances

Unless you've been living under a rock, I shouldn't need to remind you that "Wonder Woman" was one of 2017's biggest hits. It's a fun action movie, but the coolest byproduct of the film was reading stories of young girls feeling empowered by what (and who) they saw onscreen.

Films like "Wonder Woman" tap into a truth that counters conventional Hollywood logic -- heroes are cool, but heroines are just as good. And if "WW" left you hungry for stories of real-life heroines, there's a movie now in theaters that should grab your attention.

I had the opportunity to see "Battle of the Sexes" at this year's Telluride Film Festival. The film follows Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in their respective build-ups to their famous real-life 1973 tennis match.

During my screening, the audience was locked in; everyone was invested in King's success like we were watching the match live on TV. But there was one woman I'll never forget. She looked to be in her 50s -- she may have remembered watching the actual match. And, after every point King won, she pumped her fist, occasionally even whispering, "Yes!"

The best movies are the ones that not only entertain but connect to us in an emotional way. Precious few go beyond a connection and empower us to greater things. We got a glimpse of this in "Wonder Woman," and now, I'll never forget the experience of the woman who sat next to me as we watched King stare injustice in the face and stand firm.

But, regardless of the final scene's reception, how's the rest of the movie?

Set in the early 1970s, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has been storming her way into the national spotlight. She's been dominating the women's tennis scene, becoming the first female to earn $100,000. Due to unequal pay, King and a group of female tennis pros split off from the United States Lawn Tennis Association and form the Virginia Slims Tour, the first professional women's tennis tour to offer substantial pay for its players. King is on top of the world.

Cut to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). A former #1 overall in the men's circuit, Riggs now works for his father-in-law's business by day and hustles his drinking buddies out of sportscars by night. He balks at the idea of women being paid the same as men, and concocts a plan: he'll challenge the women's #1 to an exhibition match to prove himself the superior sex. First, he challenges Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and takes care of her in straight sets. Next up? Billie Jean King.

King is thrust into not only the role of the patron saint of women's sports, but as a leading figure in the fight for equality. While she tries to straddle this tightrope, everything becomes irrevocably complicated for her as she accepts that she is attracted to women and begins a secret relationship with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

"Battle of the Sexes" is a good movie. But, that's all it is -- good. It hits all the marks for a standard biopic, but I doubt it's a classic I'll be returning to time and time again.

The best parts of the movie -- and what is most likely to motivate Billie Jean King agnostics to go to the theater -- are Stone and Carell.

King was the perfect role for Stone's first foray into biopic territory. She exudes wit, charm and verve in the face of opposition, whether it's Bobby Riggs or chauvinistic commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). The film's lighter scenes and Billie Jean's confident moments are matched with a grounded emotional reality in the fraught moments of others becoming suspicious of her relationship with Marilyn. Stone carefully portrays the burden of King's inner turmoil between her closeted sexuality and her public persona.

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Steve Carell is just as good, if not better. Channeling aspects of Michael Scott, Carell plays Riggs as a clown, not so much a raging sexist as an opportunist willing to play up the theatrics of a "battle of the sexes" for financial gain. One of my favorite moments comes during the obligatory sports movie montage during preparation for the final match. As King trains, Riggs entertains the media with a training match against one of his sons while dressed like a German shepherd girl (with live sheep on the court, no less) and other equally facetious setups. Carell's buffoonish humor pairs perfectly with Riggs' larger-than-life persona. (Note: the irony of me, a straight white boy, lauding the performance of the straight, white male lead in this film about female empowerment, is not lost on me.)

These two lead the way, with a strong supporting cast backing them up. Of note are Sarah Silverman, who's hilarious as the promoter and organizer of the women's tour, and Riseborough, whose free-spirited Marilyn helps give King the courage to accept her sexuality.

Outside the performances, though, "Battle of the Sexes" lacks any distinguishing qualities. It's a solid biopic and worth seeing at least once, especially considering it might get some awards attention once Oscars season ramps up. But if you miss it in theaters, it's one you could easily catch up with as a rental.

3.5/5 Stars