Challengers is a Compelling Look at How Tennis Mirrors Relationships

Tennis and relationships share key similarities: both require effective communication, teamwork, patience, trust, and consistent effort. In tennis, players must work together, understand each other’s styles, and handle pressure, just as partners in a relationship must support and understand each other while navigating challenges. This is the thematic backbone behind Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers–an emotionally detailed and sensual love triangle that happens to be a damn good tennis movie as well. Guadagnino’s direction powers the film, the gradually revealing screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, the always fabulous Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, and the three excellent lead performances by Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor.

The film explores themes of ambition, rivalry, and the complexities of human relationships. It delves into the power dynamics within personal and professional spheres, examining how past relationships impact present choices and futures. It doesn’t avoid portraying adult themes, making it a refreshing addition to contemporary cinema that often avoids such frank explorations of sexuality and ambition.​ The advertisements for Challengers highlight the sexual aspect between the three leads, but, apart from some intense kissing (the most intense being between the men) and fondling, there’s not any explicit sex at all.

Challengers is a tale about Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former tennis prodigy whose promising career is abruptly halted by an injury. As she transitions into a coaching role, Tashi marries Art (Mike Faist), a tennis champion grappling with a severe slump in his career. The plot thickens when Art is slated to compete against Patrick (Josh O’Connor), his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, reigniting old tensions and rivalries. This clash of tennis prowess and emotional entanglements creates an engaging narrative that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

The narrative is intricately structured around these three central characters, with frequent flashbacks revealing their intertwined pasts and how these histories shape their present motivations and conflicts. This non-linear storytelling approach adds depth to the characters and the story, though it can sometimes disrupt the narrative momentum, leading to a somewhat disjointed viewing experience.​ It takes a bit to get going, but once the flashback structure is employed, we get more revelation about this ménage à trois.

Guadagnino is celebrated for his lush visuals, emotional depth, and meticulous attention to sensory details. Every element—from a player’s subtle movement to a casual remark—is laden with meaning in Challengers. Guadagnino’s direction ensures that no scene is without purpose, creating a film rich in visual and emotional information​. The film explores love as a form of competition. The recurring line, “Are we talking about tennis?” emphasizes this theme, blurring the lines between sport and personal relationships. The interactions within the love triangle serve as metaphors for the characters’ deeper conflicts, enhancing the narrative’s tension and complexity​​.

While Challengers centers around tennis, its focus is on its characters’ personal and thematic layers. The sport is a backdrop for exploring human connections, rivalries, and desires. The dynamic between Tashi, Art, and Patrick is the film’s highlight, driven by the actors’ chemistry and passionate performances. The film features intense, sensual scenes that may be provocative for some viewers​.

Zendaya shines as Tashi, delivering a performance that could be a strong contender in the awards season. Her portrayal of a woman striving for success while dealing with personal frustrations is compelling. Mike Faist as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick also deliver strong performances, capturing the complexity of their characters’ relationships with Tashi and each other​. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography captures the intensity of tennis matches and personal interactions. However, the rapid cuts in the tennis scenes can be disorienting. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds to the film’s tension, though it is sometimes seen as overused​.

Challengers transcends its tennis setting to delve deeply into human relationships and desires. Guadagnino’s meticulous filmmaking, combined with powerful performances by Zendaya, Faist, and O’Connor, creates a film in which the lines between love and competition blur compellingly. The film’s blend of passion, intimacy, and character depth ensures it captivates beyond the tennis court, making it a noteworthy addition to contemporary cinema​.

***1/2 out of **** B+ 

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