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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Challengers


Art (Mike Faist), Tashi (Zendaya) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) are inextricably linked by love and tennis in Challengers (Distributed by MGM and United Artists Releasing)

Challengers is about a love triangle that is actually about tennis. It is the story of two professional tennis players with a complicated relationship, based mostly around a woman. Luca Guadagnino is an excellent director, known for his handling of eroticism. What is so intriguing this time is that, although it is centered on the sexual feelings these men hold for this woman, there are no sex scenes. There is some nudity (of the male variety) and a few intimate moments, yet no lovemaking occurs onscreen. That is probably because, for her, tennis is sex and everything else is tennis. Guadagnino captures that passion expertly, though he’s a little inconsistent when it comes to translating it to the less inherently dramatic scenes.


The structure, which jumps around in time a lot, is kind of annoying in the way it delivers information after we’ve already figured it out. I’m not sure a linear approach would’ve lost any impact. The tennis matches are filmed pretty well, with a lot of intensity, with the exception of a ball’s-eye-view camera angle that was unpleasant to look at. Guadagnino is more detached here than I usually find him to be, making this story, about three Americans from their late teens into their early 30s, feel strangely French. I enjoyed Challengers quite a bit, while also being mildly frustrated whenever its style overwhelmed its story.


Art and Patrick are best friends and aspiring pro tennis players. When they meet Tashi, a budding superstar, they are both instantly infatuated with her. From that point on, their careers and lives go in very different directions, leading up to a huge championship match that could change the winner’s fortunes.


That they compete against each other in a tournament final isn’t a spoiler because the movie opens with them starting the match. It flashes back-and-forth between that clash and various points in their friendship, mainly focused on their relationships with Tashi. The pacing of Challengers (127 minutes, without the end credits) is interesting due to this. The way the characters bounce off of each other is almost like watching tennis. That makes sense since Tashi lives tennis like it’s her life and lives life like it’s tennis. Scenes are filmed with this concept in mind, creating odd moments where dialogue scenes are interrupted by loud, intense music.

As Tashi, Zendaya is the driving force of the story and pacing of the movie. Tashi treats every interaction as a point she needs to win. She is manipulative and confrontational, but she is hiding deep personal disappointment and vulnerability. Her feelings toward Art and Patrick can be hard to fully read at times. Is she just using them for entertainment and personal gain? Or does she truly love at least one of them?


Sometimes it feels like she’s purposely pitting them against each other. At others, there’s the distinct possibility that maybe she wishes she could choose both. Zendaya plays Tashi with so much confidence and outward maturity, obscuring the insecurity lurking beneath the surface. It’s a meaty role on the edge of camp and I wonder what this would’ve looked like had Guadagnino let it go there.


As the guys, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are fine. Faist, as Art, is less confident of his abilities and more purely in love with Tashi. O’Connor, as Patrick, is arrogant and seems mostly to lust after Tashi. Their friendship comes off as natural and they are fairly charming, especially together. However, Tashi tends to steamroll them, Art more than Patrick, yet even he never seems entirely sure how to handle her. The dramatic tension in the plot comes from their difficulty in reading her. A lot of the entertainment comes from there, too.


Challengers is kind of silly, sometimes intentionally so, with a conclusion that is true to what has come before it, while also being over the top. Luca Guadagnino is working in a different register here. It’s a bit playful, as well as cynical, in its take on sex and love. I didn’t love it, but I had a lot of fun with it.

 

3¾ out of 5

 

Cast:

Zendaya as Tashi

Mike Faist as Art

Josh O’Connor as Patrick

 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Written by Justin Kuritzkes

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