Challengers (2024) Review

Challengers (2024) Review

Challengers (2024)
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: Justin Kuritzkes
Starring: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

When 18-year-old rising tennis star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) first meets best friends and fellow tennis players Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), she tells them that tennis is more than just hitting a ball with a racket – it’s a relationship. Sitting on the beach, while waves crash in the background, Tashi explains that playing a really good game of tennis is like being in love or not existing at all, leaving everything you have out on the court and succumbing to perfect unity with your fellow player.

The problem with Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to his 2022 romantic horror film Bones and All, is that it isn’t quite as sensual and explosive as it promises to be. It stops short of becoming the kind of visceral experience Tashi describes and teeters for its entire runtime on the edge of a precipice it refuses to jump off. Some great, nuanced performances by our three leads, coupled with Guadagnino’s sharp and exhilarating direction, is ultimately let down by a script that doesn’t fully support either. What we are left with is a film that teases us with the possibility of what it could be, rather than one that celebrates the transgressive ideas that lie just below the surface, lingering at the edge of every frame.

Challengers recounts the last thirteen-or-so years of Tashi, Art and Patrick’s lives, bouncing back and forth between the past and the present. When we first see Tashi, she’s in her early 30s, a mom, and both wife and coach to Art. Following a horrific knee injury, Tashi has been living her tennis dreams vicariously through Art, who she has trained to be the kind of player she never had the chance to become. But Art has lost confidence following an injury of his own, and so Tashi arranges for him to compete at a challenger event to get him back on track. Art’s former best friend, Patrick, a no-name player who can’t even afford a hotel room and sleeps in his car, is also competing at the challenger. From there, we travel back and forth through time to see how Art and Patrick met Tashi, why their friendship crumbled, and just how much all three of them have to lose over one simple tennis match.

Challengers marks a welcomed return for the kind of sexy, mid-budget, made-for-adults movie that has been on the verge of extinction for years thanks to Hollywood’s preoccupation with mega-franchises and inoffensive, IP-driven slop. The film’s messy love triangle and imperfect, morally questionable characters are sure to be a breath of fresh air to those of you who are craving a little skin to skin contact amid an increasingly sexless media landscape. If you look closely, however, Challengers doesn’t go deep enough to be effective.

There’s plenty of skin in Challengers, but Guadagnino reserves most kinds of sensuality for the court. While playing tennis, his characters sweat and grunt, with Zendaya early in the film letting out a guttural scream of orgasmic delight when she wins a match. Guadagnino focuses on shots of straining thigh muscles and glistening torsos, and it’s truly awe-inspiring to witness the full scope of the human body’s capabilties, the sheer power that it contains, especially when played over an anxious, 90s techno score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. To our characters, tennis is sex – and it’s exciting to see the dynamics of Patrick and Art’s relationship play out through their matches against each other. Tennis is clearly how these people relate to and communication with each other. It’s what holds them together, but it is also an obstacle. The very idea of the game dominates their conversations – Guadagino even shoots their fights scenes like a tennis match, cutting in from multiple angles in quick succession.

By comparison, the actual sex in Challengers fails to convey the same level of intensity or reveal anything meaningful about the characters and their relationships with each other. Guadagnino does a much better job personifying sex in Bones and All, which powerfully illustrated how interwoven desire and consumption can be. But Kuritzkes’ script never gives us or the actors enough to work with. The few intimate scenes in the film feel half baked and they fizzle out or fade to black before anything meaningful can be inferred from them. The film never takes the time to truly know its characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, and it feels like they don’t exist outside of each other. The buzzed about hotel scene, where Tashi makes out with both Art and Patrick, is perhaps a great representation of the dynamic between the three of them, but Challengers simply doesn’t engage with the ideas the scene introduces.

Luca Guadagnino’s instincts regarding the direction of Patrick and Art’s relationship feels so organic and true, and when the actors are able to lean into the sexual tension that is so clearly the undercurrent of their relationship, the film comes alive. It invites comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, a film that doesn’t just play with the same themes, but actively engages with them. Unfortunately, the script for Challengers struggles when it comes to exploring the inner lives of its characters and, at times, feels at odds with some of the ideas Guadagnino tries to put forward. O’Connor and Faist do a lot of heavy lifting as a result, and they certainly rise to the occasion. Faist, who burst onto the big screen in 2021 playing Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, is quietly manipulative and unassuming as Art, easily embodying his younger self’s boyishness as well as the broken, tiredness of his older self. O’Connor is the obvious standout, though, playing Patrick with a sleaziness that is both charming and irritating. Through the command he has over his physicality, O’Connor manages to convey every lustful thought and uneasy question, with the twinkle in his eye and the smirk on his lips the closest this film ever gets to feeling dangerous. Together, Faist and O’Connor are an exceptional duo – finishing each other sentences and literally moving as one. Ultimately, the film loses something when they aren’t together.

For Zendaya, Challengers marks a turning point in her career. Although she’s no stranger to playing heavy or mature material thanks to her Emmy-winning performance in HBO’s Euphoria, this is the first time she has been given such a dynamic and demanding big screen role. Challengers is a test for her, one that Zendaya never fully passes. As a young Tashi, with a promising tennis career at her fingertips, Zendaya is dazzling. She captures Tashi’s innocence and youthful spirit really well. After her injury and the demise of her tennis career, Zendaya hardens, closes off, but she struggles when playing the oldest version of Tashi. The costuming does a lot to age her up, dressing her in black lace and sleek pant suits, but she is never quite convincing enough as a frustrated mother and long-suffering coach, who is desperately clinging to anything that makes her feel alive. Similarly, Tashi’s relationship with Art and Patrick is just not as interesting as the one that Art and Patrick have with each other, and Zendaya often feels sidelined because of it.

Overall, Challengers has a lot going for it. It is tense and exhilarating and features some truly superb acting and direction. But it also lacks that special something that makes films like this unforgettable. In the end, the idea of Challengers is better than what we got.

Score: 17/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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