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The news site of UNC Wilmington

The Seahawk

The news site of UNC Wilmington

The Seahawk

“Challengers” is sensual and utterly sensational

Sports films have always had an interesting place in the broader cinematic landscape. These films have the task of not only bringing the sport they are covering to life in an engaging way to appeal to fans of the event, but to also tell a captivating story around it to attract audiences who may or may not be familiar with it. Films such as “Rudy” and the “Rocky” franchise succeed at this goal, and films like “I, Tonya,” “King Richard” and the ever controversial “The Blind Side” even manage to be huge awards hitters, but a lot of them tend to fall flat and not really stick the landing with audiences outside of die-hard sports fanatics.

On the same token, Luca Guadagnino is a director whose career has been fairly lowkey, in spite of the critical success of most of his films. After starting with smaller Italian films such as “Melissa P.,” “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” Guadagnino made his big break with American audiences with his 2017 Oscar winning adaptation of André Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name,” the divisive 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic “Suspiria” and the 2022 genre fusion adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ “Bones and All.” His latest film is “Challengers,” an entirely original effort that brings the world of tennis to life at the core of an erotic drama, and I can say that it absolutely delivers as both a sports film and as a captivating film on its own merits.

“Challengers” centers around Patrick Sweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), two best friends and tennis players on the rise who both fall for superstar tennis prospect Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). After several years with both Patrick and Art fighting for Tashi’s affection, Tashi suffers a gruesome injury that cuts her career short. Years later, Tashi and Art are now married and the latter is a renowned tennis pro, but is on a horrific losing streak and one US Open short of becoming a Grand Slam champion. To fix his odds and reignite his spirit in the game, Tashi signs Art up for a low-level Challenger match in N.Y., and soon enough, Art finds himself facing off against a fellow competitor—none other than Patrick—in the final match, a trifecta of relationships in the balance.

On the surface, “Challengers” seems like nothing more than a classic love triangle story with tennis as a focal point, but it manages to provide many layers and complexities that make the film nothing short of enthralling. The script by Justin Kuritzkes is told in a nonlinear fashion, starting with the final match between Art and Patrick and continuously jumping back and forth between the match itself, the first meeting between the three, their ensuing ups, downs, eroticism and everything in between. This approach keeps the audience on their toes, never being able to guess what will happen when, when we will cut back to the big match, what secret layers the characters are hiding and so much more.

The expertly crafted script, complete with sharp dialogue and palpable tension and wit, is complemented by Guadagnino’s masterful direction. In any other director’s hands, this script could easily run the risk of being too much and too confusing for the audience, but Guadagnino’s direction keeps it all together. There are so many intricacies to this script and the characters—with plenty of revelations, backstabbing, banter and both emotional and sexual tension—and Guadagnino captures all of it with total expertise. Not only is “Challengers” stylish and engrossing with its direction, Guadagnino also keeps quite a lot of information up in the air, leaving audiences to put some of the pieces together themselves, and it was a treat to see a film not hold the audience’s hand and spell out every detail in a satisfying manner.

Even without its stellar script and amazing direction, “Challengers” is a stacked film when it comes to the technical side. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is dazzling throughout, capturing everything from the intense matches to the more quiet and intimate moments perfectly, and even going off the walls in the best way possible, such as a POV shot of the tennis ball being rallied back and forth. Marco Costa’s fast-paced and electric editing is top-notch, which is a welcome surprise for someone who is usually not a fan of quick cuts in films. The editing makes it feel like the film itself is a tennis match, bouncing back and forth between characters, and it makes the film all the more enticing.

The production design by Merissa Lombardo and costume design by Jonathan Anderson are exquisite, with the latter being especially noteworthy. The costumes in the film almost tell a story themselves, with characters swapping clothes at several points to add more to their character and convey a sense of narrative resonance and irony, and it excels at that. The makeup work is impressive, showing scars and injuries with a lot of practicality and only adding to the immersion.

The entire film and all its other amazing attributes are topped off by an utterly fantastic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The entire score is full of electronic beats and pure energy almost akin to club music—with a few slower piano tracks thrown in for the more gradual  moments—and it not only added to the tension and atmosphere of the film tenfold, it also had me tapping my feet to the rhythm at several points, and I went out my way to download the score as soon as I got out of the theater.

At the end of the day, “Challengers” would simply not carry as much weight and momentum if its cast underperformed, and the three leads do anything but, all turning in award-worthy performances. Zendaya is spectacular as Tashi, showing both her devotion to the sport of tennis and her almost calculated and subtle manipulation of the two men pining for her, serving as the de facto homewrecker she swears to them she is not, but also shows enough deeper layers to really mask her true intentions and feelings. As for Art and Patrick, Faist and O’Connor bring so much variation and charisma to the two, respectively. Just like Tashi, both show a level of genuine care and affection for Tashi and each other, but also display just enough cold manipulation and razor sharp pettiness to make their true intentions not entirely clear, which keeps the audience guessing about what the three characters really want and who to root for. While there are other films where that gray morality can be problematic and cowardly, here it only adds to the story and characters and makes the film unpredictable as a result, and that just makes it all the more enticing to see where they end up.

It is a pleasure to say that “Challengers” pulls off the balance between being an engaging look into the world of tennis and a wildly entertaining film in its own right. The film is smartly written and keeps the audience guessing where the story and characters will go, only helped by the stellar direction. The lead trio all give phenomenal and layered performances that enhance the film by a mile, and all the technical elements—topped off by an electrifying score—come together to make the film all the more amazing to witness. As someone who is usually adverse to these types of films as a non-sports enthusiast, I had a blast watching “Challengers” and cannot recommend it enough.

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