Challengers – Film Review

A love triangle with everything on the line – Challengers follows Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy, and the two men at the centre of her life: struggling champion Art Donaldson and his former best friend Patrick Zweig. Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist, Challengers is directed by Luca Guadagnino with a screenplay written by novelist and playwright Justin Kuritzkes.

As teenagers, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Art Donaldson (Faist) and Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) cross paths following wins at a junior championship. Infatuated with the young tennis prodigy, Art and Patrick pit themselves against each other to win her affections. Spurred by their attention, Tashi briefly dates Patrick before marrying Art, effectively driving a wedge between them. When a career-ending injury forces Tashi to hang up her racquets, she puts her knowledge and skills of the sport to use and becomes Art’s coach, helping him to rise through the ranks and become a household name while Patrick fails to live up to his talent, falling off the ranks and struggling to make ends meet.

Chasing the illustrious grand slam title, Art’s losing streak is causing tension in his marriage to Tashi. In an effort to get his career back off the ground, Tashi enrols him as a wild card entry into a lower-level challenger competition, but her redemption strategy takes an unexpected turn when he must go up against Patrick in the challenger final. Told through a non-linear narrative, Challengers explores the events leading up to Patrick and Art’s final showdown, and how Tashi played them both better than any of them ever played the game.

Challengers is a mostly slick and incredibly frenetic sports romance with excellent performances from its leading men. Faist, primarily known for his work on Broadway, makes a lasting impression in what is a true breakout role; as the emerging tennis star Art Donaldson, Faist is magnetic on screen. Art is completely beholden to Tashi, equal parts gentle and possessive, and with his boyish good looks, Faist is able to convincingly portray Art from his teenage years through to adulthood. Patrick, in contrast, is cocky and explosive on and off the court and O’Connor delivers flawlessly. Handsome with a natural smugness, O’Connor’s expertise seems to lay in the subtleties, with small glances and minute movements adding nuanced layers to his scenes.

Zendaya, per usual, delivers a very solid performance as the single-minded, driven Tashi. Volatile and laser focused, Tashi has only ever loved the game, describing a good tennis match like an epic romance. Her relationships with Patrick and Art are both purely needs driven, especially after her playing career is ripped away from her. Determined to stay close to the game, Tashi’s marriage and partnership with Art is built around maintaining her relevance while her continued flirtation with Patrick feeds her ego. A multi-faceted woman, Tashi may not become Zendaya’s most well-known role, but is currently her most complex.

Thai cinematographer and frequent Guadagnino collaborator, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom makes every possible scene play out as a tennis match, and with the help of editor Marco Costa, conversations between characters are told using fast and choppy cuts that create the feeling of watching two players battling it out on the court. Interestingly, many scenes also included dizzying POV shots that attempt to amp up the energy and it’s in these moments where the film actually loses some of its sheen. While some of the shots are exceptionally clean, specifically the ground-up angles with glass surfaces to show ball-bounces, the majority of the POV shots feel sickening and so unnecessary.

Another artistic choice that falls incredibly flat comes from the sound department. While Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have crafted an electric score that appropriately matches the energy of the film, the decision to have the music play out so loudly in some scenes, especially ones with dialogue, is completely baffling. Rather than creating tension in those moments, the volume of the score only served as an annoyance and detracted from what would have been otherwise powerful dialogue.

Challengers is, at its core, a love story but not the one you might expect. Despite its post-production shortcomings, the engaging performances and interesting story of Challengers makes it a film worth seeing at least once.

Challengers is in cinemas now.

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