Challengers (2024)

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Movie Reviews, New In Theaters | 0 comments

Led by an incredible trio of talented performers, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers delivers a steamy look at a unique love triangle built on competition and friendship. Setting a story of love, betrayal, and rivalry against the backdrop of professional tennis made for a rather entertaining time as energy and tension was rallied back and forth. With a non-linear approach to the story, Challengers teases the audience with flashes of shocking moments that keep things unexpected and wildly entertaining. It’s sexy. It’s sensual. It’s seriously something special!

Challengers

Decades after they were best-friends and roommates in boarding school while playing tennis, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) find themselves competing in a challenger event that carries more weight than the spectators know. Trained by his wife and coach Tashi (Zendaya), Art has found plenty of success in professional tennis but has started to hit a slump as he shifts his focus to family life. Still hung up on feelings from the past, Tashi struggles to support her husband’s dwindling love of the game while her ex-boyfriend Patrick is getting back into it. As the three of their pasts begin to return, this latest matchup between the men is fueled by intense emotion and a rivalry that burns hotter than the sun.

Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a sensational film career that’s impressed me on a visual front as much as it has on an emotional front as well. Telling deeply personal stories without compromising the realities of relationships and interactions, Guadagnino can convey so much through his lens without needing to have his characters spell out exactly what they’re feeling. Studying this power and love dynamic between three completely different personality types was endlessly fascinating as Guadagnino has no time or care for the labels that often pigeonhole so many people in society. It’s clear in every shot that Guadagnino has such a reverence for filmmaking and storytelling, and he uses so many different devices to fill the story in from the background, ending up with a masterful piece of art informed by so much more than just words. With steamy close-ups and thrilling camera work on the tennis court Guadagnino keeps the energy pumping as his steady hand lets the camera linger on the sexy and scintillating stars.

Making his writing debut only a short year after his wife Celine Song debuted her first feature film Past Lives, Justin Kuritzkes shows incredible talent in handling the intricacies of both relationships and friendships and the line that could potentially blur between those two. The common love triangle is thrown out the window here in Challengers, as Kuritzkes shifts the attention to the two men and the bond they’ve formed over years. While they’re both in love with Zendaya’s Tashi, there’s something that neither of them gets from her that they subtly feel when they’re alone together. Kuritzkes keeps the audience and characters guessing as to how they’ll behave when the stakes continue to mount, and egos become bruised as time rages on. For a movie about tennis, Kuritzkes sure knows how to serve up a sexy and sizzling soap opera that grabs ahold of you and capitalizes on so many quality narrative devices (the ending is just a phenomenal use of callbacks and storytelling).

Starring in what feels like her first real “adult role”, Zendaya owns your attention the moment she enters the frame and holds it tightly like she does with the gaze of her male suitors. Playing Tashi at different stages in her life allows Zendaya to bring so many different energies to the film based on which man she’s dealing with. It’s clear that she and O’Connor’s connection is intensely physical, while her connection with Faist is far more influenced by tenderness and emotional comfort. The struggle Tashi feels with her own limitations in the sport bleeds into her interactions with the once best friends and creates this dynamic between the three of them that’s ruled by competition and passion. Watching Zendaya turn cold and into a character who cares about winning above all else makes for a thrilling time at the movies on its own and only gets better when she begins putting the boys in their places.

Standing right alongside Zendaya in delivering captivating performances are both Faist and O’Connor who seemingly come out of nowhere and deliver two of the year’s strongest performances in outstanding fashion. It’s rare two see two performers so in-sync with one another in a way that feels like it transcends the movie and characters you’re watching, and that’s exactly how it feels to watch the two men play with each other. Whether they’re horsing around on the tennis court or spending quality time with each other outside of school, Faist and O’Connor just make complete sense as best friends and it feels like they’re the only two people who don’t realize that they share a bond far more special than that. Nicknamed Fire & Ice during their doubles matches, the two completely inhabit those names in the way they carry themselves with Zendaya and how they operate as individuals. Faist’s Art feels more guarded than O’Connor’s reckless Patrick, but it’s when they’re both with Zendaya’s Tashi that their real passion comes to play.

As if the on-court tennis wasn’t engaging enough, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch nails have crafted an unbelievable techno score that completely submerges you in the best kind of movie trance. Backed by remnants of their iconic The Social Network score and BPM’s that just won’t quit, Ross and Reznor inject an audio language of their own into the film that’s reflected in the style of play both on and off the court. Moments of intense passion and bitter rage feel 10x as impactful with the bumping score keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and wondering what accompanies the songs climax. It’s the kind of music that deserves awards attention and will also be featured in the hottest night clubs this summer as people sweat and gyrate like the characters and theater audiences did in their seats.

Challengers is a riveting experience in the theater that tells its story in such a grandiose and perfectly dramatic way. There are genuinely so many moments that had the whole theater gasping which is a credit to Guadagnino and his ability to build tension and capitalize on “movie moments”. For me, I know I loved a movie when I can’t stop thinking about it and all I’ve been able to do to scratch my Challengers itch is loop the awesome soundtrack. Zendaya is impressive on so many levels and she proved with Challengers and Dune: Part Two that she’s ready to take over Hollywood (though do keep an eye out for Faist and O’Connor, as they’re both far too talented to not blow up after their fantastic performances).

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