Challengers Review | Point Break

by Andrew Parker

Acclaimed and varied filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s romantic sports melodrama Challengers deftly skirts along the razor’s edge of high art and even higher camp. A fast paced, intricately designed luxury vehicle of a motion picture, Challengers is sexy as hell, full throttle entertainment of the highest order. A film where even its supposed quieter moments are exploding with energy, drama, and humour, Challengers has the sort of propulsive drive that could appeal to even those who don’t like sports movies or steamy, three-way romances. It’s a lock to be one of the best films of the year, and assuredly up there for the title of most viscerally (and unexpectedly) entertaining.

Challengers bounces back and forth between approximately 2005 and 2019, telling the story of a trio of young tennis players, lovers, and bitter rivals on a karmic journey towards an ultimate confrontation. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) were once championship calibre doubles players on the junior circuit. The seemingly inseparable friends and colleagues both caught the eye of youthful singles phenom Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), and immediately – and with her flirtatious urging – they begin duelling for her affections on and off the court. But while Patrick initially started dating Tashi, things didn’t stay that way for very long after they went their separate ways in university. 

Fast forward to the present, and Tashi’s playing days are long behind her, as a result of a career ending injury. She’s married to Art – who’s now a multiple time champion – mother to their child, and his beleaguered coach, trying to help him break out of a losing streak. To get him into fighting shape for the upcoming US Open (the one major tennis title he hasn’t won), Tashi enters Art into a low stakes, tune-up “challenger” tournament in New Rochelle, New York. Much to her chagrin and disdain, Patrick is also entered into the tournament, only now he’s more or less living hand to mouth and sleeping in his car between tournaments, hoping to play well enough in a “challenger” and earn a big money slot at a proper tour showcase.

Challengers doesn’t dance around the “will they or won’t they meet in the finals” trope early on. It’s destiny. It’s preordained. The first scene shows that the big showdown is going to happen, and the script from Justin Kuritzkes artfully and methodically weaves together the story of how they got there in the first place and why the stakes of their most recent encounter will be life changing for both the players and Tashi alike. The unique structure of Kuritzkes’ screenplay not only allows Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria, Bones and All) to go off stylistically, but also imbues Challengers with a sly sense of self-awareness, which proves to be key when telling a story around three characters that are essentially narcissistic egomaniacs. The talent on screen and behind the camera all know that the audience is smart enough to realize that tennis is being used as a metaphor for love, sex, relationships, and the flawed human condition, so everyone just decides to value the viewer’s intelligence, lean into the obvious, and have a good bit of nearly over-the-top fun.

Guadagnino knows exactly what viewers expect from a film like Challengers, which is why he does everything in his power as a director to misdirect, confound, and keep the viewer on their toes. The plot of Challengers is, admittedly, rather straightforward in its approach and themes, but the execution is relentlessly paced and glorious to behold. The cinematography from frequent Guadagnino collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is dazzling in its ability to capture the smallest details of the game of tennis and in its willingness to get in as close to these characters as possible in their most vulnerable and tense moments. The production design adds some cheekiness via period appropriate styles from the early aughts and a plethora of product placement (which is a key component in every sporting event these days, but also the only major downside of Challengers on the whole), as does the song choices of pop hits from the not too distant past. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – one of their absolute best and most catchy – is employed in a savvy way to accentuate scenes that would play in a completely different emotional fashion if one were to take the music out of the equation. It’s a bold and fascinating choice.

The core trio of performers are also in perfect lockstep with Guadagnino and Kuritzkes’ vision. While initially it feels like Faist got the short end of the stick when it came to landing the most interesting character in the film, he delivers some terrific character work as both young and old Art, depicting him as a shy, malleable, single minded person trying to surprise everyone around them for a change. O’Connor gets the flashiest role as the immature, unreliable vagabond who wasted most of their potential, but still has a chip on his shoulder, emerging as the closest thing Challengers has to a hero, simply because he’s more relatable than his counterparts. Although she’s painted as somewhat of a villain and a “homewrecker,” Zendaya’s turn as Tashi is nuanced and full of discoveries. Her mounting frustrations have been building for years, and while she hasn’t lost the killer edge that made her a fierce competitor, she has trouble flat out exploding with rage in ways that she used to. She has grown cold, and there’s a distinct sadness to that Zendaya plays with throughout Challengers. She has particularly exceptional chemistry with O’Connor, and the arguments their characters have with each other are practically tailor made for Oscar montage clips. If Guadagnino is giving everything he has behind the camera for Challengers, his cast is responding in kind.

Guadagnino isn’t afraid to go big at any point in the film, even at the risk of appearing silly. Every swing is a big one, from the good-natured visual homoeroticism at the heart of Art and Patrick’s partnership via the carefully attenuated usage of bananas and churros to an all out cataclysmic looking wind storm that the makers of Twister would suggest toning down to a jump scare at an Applebees. Challengers hits the ground running like an athlete. It’s going to go hard and eventually you are going to go home and think about what it all means long after the film has ended. And like most great movies, Challengers sticks to its guns throughout. There are no faults or missteps along the way, even when dealing with material as classical as a sports romance aimed at bringing in every demographic possible. Upon leaving the theatre in my still exhilarated state, when someone asked what I thought of the movie, all I could say was a near breathless, “It’s really fucking good.”

Challengers opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, April 26, 2024.

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