Challengers (2024) | Review

Challengers is a lust-filled romance of complex characters which makes for rewarding viewing and will quickly find its fans.

challengers poster
Source: The Movie Database

Synopsis: A complicated love triangle evolves between a tennis ace and a doubles team who are best friends and both pining for her. Years later, the two men play each other in the finals of a challenger tournement.

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist

Challengers is a lust-filled romance of complex characters which makes for rewarding viewing. Although some aesthetic choices get in the way, Luca Guadagnino’s newest film will quickly find its fans, regardless of their affinity for sport.

Tragic tennis ace Tashi Duncan is by far Zendaya’s most rewarding role to date. After pleasing teen roles, she’s given a sharp and powerful career woman made even more interesting as her career is halted before it even begins. Going in I was fearful Tashi would be two-dimensional. Her competing lovers, both have to put up speed bumps to stop her talking too much tennis, but as their complex relationship unfolds Zendaya pulls off mean, cold, vulnerable, scared, frustrated, angry, and condescending extremely well.

Starring as said lovers are Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, who bring to mind some of the tennis greats in their presentation and playing style. Faist’s Art Donaldson is Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic (read: a lab creation with the sole purpose of being the face of tennis) while Faist is the wilder Rafa Nadal (read: every bit as good, but a little wilder and a fair bit sexier). Seeing these two in their formative years as best friends is delightful and makes their unfolding match and poisoned relationship more painful.

challengers screencap
Source: The Movie Database

From top to bottom, the characters and story are pristine. The same can’t be said of the camerawork or soundtrack. Far from bad, they are a mixed bag of choices. There are few ways to shoot a tennis match that Challengers doesn’t try and results range from an action-packed aerial shot of a close volley rally to the impossible glass-floor court and the disorientating body and ball-cam. While they aren’t all winners, taking these visual risks is still appreciated. I’m less forgiving of the thumping soundtrack that accompanies quiet scenes just as frequently as physically intense ones. Meant to show ratcheting tension, they get in the way of important dialogue which is one of the film’s strong suits.

A nagging question I had following my screening was curious for a romance film: is there any love here? Surely not for Tashi. Her only love was tennis, and the film does an excellent job of translating the physical communication of sex into the game to illustrate her opinion.

TASHI: For about fifteen seconds there, we were actually playing tennis. And we understood each other completely. So did everyone watching. It's like we were in love. Or like we didn't exist. We went somewhere really beautiful together.

There is a lot of meanness and backbiting in Challengers, enough to leave me initially cold to the movie. But days later I find there is a good amount of warmth under the surface and the film’s conclusion is perhaps the only time since adolescence that all three of its characters are truly happy. I’m a bleeding-heart romantic through and through so it took me a good amount of time (and writing this review) to get me there but I heartily recommend Challengers to those looking for a complex and sometimes adventurous drama as we round into the summer.

Source: YouTube