Challengers – movie review

So imagine for a minute, you’re Luca Guadagnino. Your last three features have been the cannibal road-movie Bones and All (2022), the blood-spattered remake of Suspiria (2018) and the sensitive love story Call Me By Your Name (2017). What do you do next? What’s that? Tennis? Yep, tennis! The mercurial director’s new project is Challengers, a film that revolves around the storied racquet sport. But, of course, it’s not actually about tennis.

All Guadagnino’s films, for me at least, are about otherness. His protagonists tend to be outsiders trying to navigate a world dominated by insiders. Challengers is no exception. Beyond the sensationalised “love triangle” aspect of it, the film is concerned with how an outsider – who was once an insider – can find a path back to acceptance. It’s also cleverly about what happens when an insider is in danger of being kicked out.

The film starts with elite tennis player Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) on something of a slide. Art has won just about all there is to win in his tennis career, though one prize eludes him – the US Open. But with his body not what it once was, this year – 2019 – might be his last, best chance. Compounding things, his form has been waning. His coach and wife Tashi (Zendaya) thinks the problem is mental, not physical. She convinces Art to enter a challenge event in New Rochelle just outside NYC. He can cruise to some easy victories and regain his confidence. Meanwhile, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) has also arrived in New Rochelle. Another older player, Patrick’s ranking is in the hundreds and he’s basically living out of his car. But as fate would have it, these two polar opposites make it to the final of the event.

Cut to 13 years earlier. Art and Patrick are best friends and rising stars on the junior circuit. Patrick is better, but Art is more determined. However, they’re both put in the shade by the megastar of junior tennis Tashi (then Tashi Duncan). She’s tearing through her opponents with ease. A place on the professional tour beckons, but Tashi wants to go to college before turning pro. And both Patrick and Art are completely smitten with her, especially after she deigns to talk to them at a party. The arc of the film explores how these three characters end up in New Rochelle years later.

Guadagnino works from an original script by first-time feature screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes. The director’s layered approach makes extensive use of flashbacks and flash-forwards which require some attention, but I found them pretty easy to follow. The re-creation of the various time periods seems spot on thanks to Merissa Lombardo’s production design. The focus is on the relationships, not the sport. But the actual tennis is strangely both stylised and hyper-real at the same time. The soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Killer) is intriguing. The often-lovely score is jarringly interspersed with several moments of pounding techno. These are clearly signifiers, telling the audience to pay attention to the scene because it’ll be important later on.

Guadagnino gradually builds the story through a series of encounters. The relationships between Art, Patrick and Tashi ebb and flow. Lies will be told, loyalties will shift and sexual tension will both boil over and be stifled. As such, it’s not an easy film with easy answers, but it’s worth staying with. Oh, and if you have tweens or teens demanding to see this because “it’s a Zendaya movie”, maybe steer them away – not because there’s anything terribly shocking about it, but just because Guadagnino’s intricate and languid approach may not hold their attention for the film’s 2 hours plus running time.

One consistent criticism of Guadagnino’s work is that he sometimes doesn’t know when to stop (the peach scene in Call Me By Your Name, anyone?). The same holds true here, with the extended final scene reaching a fevered conclusion that’s as perplexing as it is satisfying.

Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Josh O’Connor (La Chimera) are excellent as the friends-turned-foes. Their bro-heavy energy is infectious and I can actually buy them as professional athletes. Zendaya (Dune: Part Two) though dominates the screen as the laser-focused Tashi. It takes a while for the film to unveil her character’s true nature and Zendaya brilliantly peels away the layers as events unfold. Beyond the three main players, the remainder of the cast barely get a look in, though I did enjoy the (mostly vocal) performance of Darnell Appling – who’s actually Zendaya’s long-time assistant – as the umpire in the pivotal final.

Challengers is another fine entry in Guadagnino’s eclectic catalogue of films. This is in many ways his most accessible to date though, as noted, if you’re expecting a breezy popcorn movie, you should maybe think again. But if you’re up for a *ahem* challenging couple of hours at the movies, this could be the ticket.

David Edwards

Other reviews you might enjoy: