“Did you think by the time I’m 22, I would have done more? Or do you think this is, like, acceptable?” This question summarizes this riveting, three-themed miniseries that tries to bridge the gap between an average fan and the athletes. This slow-burning, contemplative, and feature-theme-styled documentary by filmmaker Garrett Bradley follows the four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka for two years between 20 and 22 years of age.
The relationship between athletes and the public is inversely proportional to some extent. On the athletes’ side, they train for endless hours their entire lives at a particular sport, sweating it out every single day, until they somehow make it – through sheer hard work and some luck to go with it. On the side of the spectrum, unless we are devoted fans of the sport, we might not recognize them until they appear before us. Our perceptions are based on our own snippets of time watching these athletes play or perform at that point in time, while these athletes devote their entire lives to these sports. The dynamic as a result is one of imbalance and, sadly, one that lacks empathy.
However, we don’t see Bradley aim questions specifically at Naomi, or for that matter, give a counterargument. Is it done to cut off criticism or to keep a narrative foothold? Although Osaka’s parents, sister, boyfriend, and coaches speak directly about her in talking-head interviews, the lack of re-assessments or any other counterargument of Naomi’s statements and viewpoints does hand back narrative authority to the series’ subject matter. Whatever the reasoning may be, Naomi speaks for herself here, either in the voiceover narrations or the self-recorded snippets to which Bradley was given access. The end result is one of indelible intimacy.
The filmmaker aims to build a fuller portrait of Naomi as a human being, honest about her ambitions, her failures, her conflicts, and her pride, with all the rawness and responsibility those extremities hold, and the result is a mesmerizing insight into the life of a young, quirky teenager. With each episode roughly divided into thematic segments, the series’ linear progression tracks Osaka’s sudden rise to fame and stardom to her struggles to find a balance between her personal and professional lives with the demands of being relevant in this world.
In a subtle yet powerful sequence of events that lead up to the inciting incident, Bradley opens with the home-video footage of Naomi and her sister Mari as toddlers, training under the watchful eyes of her father, Leonardo François. The scenes flow as a grown Naomi walks into the Arthur Ashe Stadium packed with onlookers.
The filmmaker tries to show Osaka’s world with an eye on the pressure she puts on herself and the pressure everyone else puts on her. In a series of well-crafted sequences, we see how people around Osaka encourage her every day, from her coach Wim Fisetti commenting on how hard she has been to herself, to a distraught Naomi seen on a self-shot video speaking about the devastating death of her mentor and hero Kobe Bryant, which leads to a young Naomi asking her mother Tamaki at her 22nd birthday dinner, “Did you think by the time I’m 22, I would have done more? Or do you think this is, like, acceptable?”
Osaka has recently drawn the headlines for boycotting the media obligations and her subsequent withdrawals from the French Open and the following events to protect her mental well-being. To a great extent, this mini-series helps contextualize those decisions as a relatable action of a woman who is still finding her feet.
Her intense schedule on the court, hitting hours of balls over and over again, hours of training, and making minute adjustments to her serve, her backhand, her footwork, and other shots. The dichotomy of her fluid and graceful movements and the physical toll they take – a scene involves Naomi laughing off a broken toenail that one of her trainers finds revolting. The same goes for her off-the-track commitments as well, with not only tackling the constant swarm of cameras and rooms full of reporters but also fashion shoots, promotional work, recording sessions, meeting her team, her agent, meeting all the business partners.
This is what it takes to maintain that competitive edge and have that cultural relevance, and thus far, the Japanese sensation has overcome most of her obstacles with flying colors. More than once, Naomi calls herself the “vessel” for other’s dreams and desires, and that introductory musing fits into a pattern of self-reflection. However, her gradual rise and wariness underscores those revealing moments that speak to Naomi’s youth; through her giggle; her asking whether she can get drunk on champagne; her wondering what life experiences she missed out on by being home-schooled and not attending college. Her curiosity and open stance make “Naomi Osaka” an informative and compelling story that resists hagiography by showing a young woman in progress.