Challengers (2024) Review

Tennis is sex. At least, that’s what Tashi Donaldson and the makers of Challengers suggest. Given the marketing and trailers of the new sports romance picture, I expected erotica. Given Luca Guadagnino’s filmography, I expected…a lot of erotica. Despite the sweaty, fleshy, did I say sweaty nature of the movie, it is, for the most part, without sex, at least in the conventional sense, but it’s no less erotic. Because like Zendaya’s Tashi Donaldson (née Duncan) tells her “little white boys”: tennis is a relationship. In Guadagnino’s time-bouncing romance, that relationship is consummated.

The screenplay for Challengers comes from Justin Kuritzkes, husband to last year’s Past Lives writer/director Celine Song (cinephilic note: if Past Lives is semi-autobiographical, that means there’s a world John Magaro’s Arthur character, semi-based on Kuritzkes, writes some version of Challengers that exists in the greater Past Lives Cinematic Universe). The script, in the wrong hands, could play like a melodramatic CW series, not dissimilar to that of an Archie-Ronnie-Betty situation, but, you know, with tennis. Instead, Guadagnino’s humanistic touch turns it into something raw and moving and dramatic. His infatuation with all parts of the physical, the face, the mouth, the hands, the thighs, as well as extremely sexy three-hander leading performances of Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor, turn a sporty love-triangle into something much more engaging.

No director working today has the ability to portray desire and longing as well as  Luca Guadagnino. After all, this is the man who made the Desire trilogy. He doesn’t just show desire between people; there’s a need to consume and devour between all things. Challengers has three leading performances, and I might be inclined to suggest capital-F Food as the fourth star. This movie features, in a significant capacity, bananas, churros, hot dogs, peaches, various bottles of health supplements, a mysterious nutritional pack, college cafeteria food, a Dunkin’ bagel sandwich, chocolate cake, gum, and cigarettes (not food for you and I, but Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig might consider them his main source of nutrition). Like all the food, Luca’s camera, and our eyes, stays close to the characters. The language of the character’s eyes is more intelligible than a lot of the dialogue (more on that later). 

It’s impossible to talk about Challengers without talking about the performances of the three leads. Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a junior tennis champion who suffers a career ending injury. Since her only skills revolve around hitting a ball with a racket, she becomes a coach to her husband, Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson. Art, for most of the movie, is repressed, exhausted by the life he’s chosen for himself. The third side of the triangle is Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig, a Peter Pan-esque man-child who never took himself seriously enough to achieve what others, namely Tashi, thought he should. The performances are each spectacular in their own right, but one element of the movie Guadagnino handles so gracefully is that of the love triangle. It’s not just two men who love the same woman; each side of the triangle touches the other. Faist’s and O’Connor’s dynamic between each other is just as engaging as either of their relationships with Zendaya, if not more so. The dynamic created means that every decision that one character makes, every action that one character takes, has personal, meaningful consequences for the other two.

I saw this movie in a theater I’d never been to before, and after the first twenty minutes or so, I was upset. I thought their sound system was wacky, because there were multiple scenes where the heavily featured and undeniably outstanding Reznor-Ross score was much louder than the dialogue, rendering the words almost inaudible (I was undoubtedly having Tenet flashbacks). After the movie ended, I texted a friend who had seen the movie, and they said they had the same experience, and I came to realize there was nothing wrong with my theater. The film is intentionally mixed to drown out dialogue and substitute conversation for the bouncy, electric score. It’s certainly a choice, but I only understood it as a choice after the fact, which makes my criticism difficult to enumerate. 

Don’t let Challengers fool you. While it may be marketed as a steamy romance for adults, my theater was full of teenage girls tee-hee-hee-ing at the whole erotic affair. That’s not a knock on the movie, it’s just to say: this movie is for a larger audience than it believes it’s for. After playing a litany of girlfriends to powerful men, Zendaya is finally capitalizing on her overwhelming star power, which should continue to only grow brighter. Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are going to their own respective places, just maybe not as high and far and fast as Zendaya. Still, the little white boys have something special. In one of the early scenes, Tashi reads over an Aston Martin advert that features both her and her husband, emblazoned in large text: “Game Changer.” Tashi takes her red marker, writes a bold, underlined “s.” Game Changers. I couldn’t help but think of ChallengerS in the same context. In a movie about power and control, there is no winner. Tennis is a relationship, therefore, relationships are tennis. Rocketing over the net, ping-ponging back and forth, power constantly transferred from one player to the other. You can slice it into the net, or you can serve an ace. For a moment, the game disappears, and two beings become pure and transcendent, almost existing as one being. But the game always ends. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you smash your racket into a million little pieces. Maybe that’s why tennis calls having zero points “love.”

brysonschubert

Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!

brysonschubert

Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!

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