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(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Movie Reviews

‘Challengers’ review: Sexy tennis film a winner

With Luca Guadagnino’s latest feature, sexual tensions take place on the tennis court.

Tennis may not be the best sport in film, but it is arguably the sexiest. From Woody Allen’s Match Point to Richard Loncraine’s Wimbledon, sexual tension seems to bloom on the tennis court, something that director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes have noticed and make it a central theme in their latest feature Challengers

Going all the way back from Guadagnino’s filmography, starting with 2005’s Melissa P., the Italian director has never shied away from titillation. Plus, when you look at particular works like 2007’s Call Me by Your Name and the 2020 HBO miniseries We Are Who We Are, Guadagnino has explored the ramifications of young love. In the case of Challengers, it is about a threesome that develops into a complex rivalry that can only get resolved with tennis rackets. 

Presented in a nonlinear narrative, Challengers is about the highly lauded young tennis prospect Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) becoming an attraction for high schoolers and childhood best friends Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). As the years go on, relationships and friendships have formed and broken, all of which culminates Art (now a professional tennis champion) plots a comeback with the help of his now-wife Tashi, who has retired after an injury, as he goes up against Patrick.

Considering that the nonlinear storytelling is initially jarring by starting with the climatic tennis match between Art and Patrick, Kuritzkes’ script makes good use of the fragmented timeline by presenting a character study between three people who are driven by ego and manipulation. When they first meet each other, they discuss what the sport they play means to them, with Patrick saying that playing tennis is his excuse of not getting a regular job.

Tashi sees the sport as a relationship. This is  established through a match with a competitor, where you can see her intensity and ambition. Art never gives his reasoning for playing the sport, and that alone becomes an arc for him. This is most evident during the climax where he is trying to win for various reasons, from the hope of defeating his former best friend for the first time, to only want to make his wife to be happy. 

There may no explicit sex scenes, but the sexual tension is strong, especially when the central three make out in a hotel room but stop short of having sex, stating that Tashi does not want to be a homewrecker and yet that’s exactly what she becomes. While Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist bounce off one another in their roles as besties to eventual rivals, each of which giving off their own energy, it is the third wheel that is Zendaya that just dominates the screen, whether or not she’s on the tennis court. For as much toughness she shows, one heartbreaking scene shows her vulnerability when she realizes what her injury means for her career. 

Although Guadagnino has acknowledged not being a fan of the sport, he makes the tennis matches here the most exciting thing ever. From Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s dizzying cinematography to Marco Costa’s sharp editing, the matches never feel one-note, whether it is the disorientating camera functioning as the POV for the tennis ball going back and forth, or the extreme close-ups of the sweat pouring down the players’ faces. And in addition to tensing up the tennis rivalries and squabbling relationships, the memorable techno beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score will keep the adrenaline up.

‘Challengers’ review: Sexy tennis film a winner
Considering the familiar themes of sexuality and young love that director Luca Guadagnino have explored in previous works, Challengers takes those themes into exciting new heights by setting them in the competitive world of tennis, where the three main performers truly shine.
Reader Rating0 Votes
Three amazing performances at the center, with Zendaya cementing herself as a true movie star.
The most exciting tennis matches you will ever see on the big screen.
You will want the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score after watching the film.
A character study about one's relationship with the sport of tennis...
...though the nonlinear narrative will initially trick you about how this will unfold, but does pay off hugely.

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