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Challengers Review: Unbridled Filmmaking Talent  

Zendaya sits on a bed between Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in the 2024 film Challengers

Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers exceeds all expectations, proving Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist exist in a new league of stardom.

To say Luca Guadagnino’s sexy new sports drama Challengers has been keeping the film community on the edge of their seat anticipating its release is an understatement. While initially slated to open the 2023 Venice Film Festival then pushed to a mid-September release due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the film’s debut has been teasing critics and movie-goers alike for several months. After seeing the film, it is uncanny how life imitates art, with the themes of anticipation and desire laced throughout the film mirroring the longing audiences have felt to finally be able to see it. I am overjoyed to report that not only does Challengers meet its rocket-high expectations, but it far exceeds them. 

Challengers is told over thirteen years, rallying back and forth between when our central trio, Patrick (Josh O’Connor, of La Chimera), Art (Mike Faist, of West Side Story) and Tashi (Zendaya, of Dune 2) meet and the aftermath of their collision. In the film’s present day, Art Donaldson is one of the most famous tennis players in the world, chasing after an elusive US Open win as it’s the only major tennis championship he has yet to win. It’s clear that no matter how much Art wants it, his coach and wife Tashi Duncan wants it more. Tashi herself was the most captivating young contender in the sport when she was at the peak of her game, but she had to give up playing after a career-ending injury.

Tashi can sense that, with age, Art is losing his confidence, and therefore his touch on the tennis court. In an effort to build his self-esteem back up, she enters him into what should be a low-stakes challengers tournament in a country club right outside of New York City. Little do Tashi and Art know, Patrick Zweig, an ominous figure in their shared past, is also competing in the challengers tournament. All three characters know the winner of the tournament will come down to a final match between Patrick and Art. 

In a flash to thirteen years earlier, we learn Art and Patrick have a bond that has not just made them inseparable, but permanently in sync with one another. They have been best friends since the age of 12 when they became roommates at an elite sports-oriented boarding school. Now 18 and at the end of their high school careers, they are competing as a team in the Junior US Open’s duos tennis and against one another in the singles division. Following the victory of their duo’s match, but before they face each other in the singles, they witness the great Tashi Duncan win the girl’s singles division. The boys see firsthand hand that, when Tashi plays, it doesn’t even look like tennis; it looks like something otherworldly. They instantly become infatuated with Tashi, and after an unforgettable encounter between the three of them, they are forever linked in both life and tennis. 

Challengers hinges on the performance and the chemistry of its three lead actors, and they do not disappoint. Guadagnino has three of the most mesmerizing actors of this generation at the apex of their game. The film wouldn’t work without the chemistry, intensity and vulnerability these actors are able to masterfully portray in order to tell this story of love, identity and betrayal. 

Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick look at each other holding glasses at night in the 2024 film Challengers
Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, an Amazon MGM Studios film (Niko Tavernise, © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Zendaya delivers a superstar-solidifying performance as one of her most complex characters yet. Young Tashi doesn’t want to be boxed in by tennis. She wants the opportunity to become more than a player; she wants to be an icon, a mogul, the type of athlete whose name is synonymous with their sport. Tennis is the love of her life and she intends to make her relationship with it last far beyond her aging out of the sport. Her career-ending injury is the one thing that has ever crossed her path that she is not able to physically dominate.

Zendaya beautifully develops Tashi’s relationship with her injury throughout the film, from her early stages of denial, anger, and frustration to her eventual, and permanent, state of defeat. She starts her career as a titan of the sport and by the age she thought she’d have a grand slam or two under her belt, she has been banished to the permanent role of a spectator and coach. This drives a deep wedge between her relationship with her husband as every success they celebrate as a team reminds her of the heights she will never be able to reach herself. 

Art understands Tashi’s love hinges on his performance on the court because he has to play for both of them in the years following her injury. He knows that she loves tennis first, then him, which puts him in a purgatory of eternal self-doubt. He wants to be great, but growing up around Patrick, he knows what raw talent is and feels like, no matter how hard he works, he will never beat someone as naturally gifted as Patrick. Art can only hope to win off Patrick’s mistakes, both in tennis and in their relationship with Tashi which has a lasting effect on the way he lives his life. It’s not that he is untalented, Art is the most decorated player of the three of them, but he knows his success is a product of a handful of things outside of his talent.

Faist is given no small task: while he’s the least brazen character in the film, he serves as the heart of it. In many ways, Patrick and Tashi are two sides of the same coin. At the beginning of the movie, it is said that Patrick and Art are known as “Fire and Ice” when they play together. While who is who is never explicitly said, it is clear that Patrick is the fire and Art is the ice. Tashi and Patrick mesh so well because they are both fire, scorching their paths and burning anyone in their way. Art is the only person that is able to neutralize them. Faist is gentle and subtle in his approach. He allows O’Connor and Zendaya to shine, as their characters naturally attract more of the light in the film, but his performance is what grounds Challengers

Josh O’Connor as Patrick, however, is the performance that will linger on your mind far after you leave the theater. Patrick was born into wealth, has an effortless charm and knows no matter who he is up against on the court, he has more natural talent than any opponent he may face. He coasts on his talents which infuriates Art and Tashi because he seemingly has the least aspirations with his incredible, god-given abilities. While Patrick is a self-proclaimed “piece of sh*t”, and absolutely no one would argue this fact, he does have a true love and adoration for both Tashi and Art. He sees Tashi as the only person able to rise to his level of play psychologically, the only person to really pose a challenge to him. His love for Art is one of those rare types of love that lies beyond a label. At times it can be described as brotherly, other times it seems entirely romantic, but without a shadow of a doubt it is unconditional. O’Connor gives dimension and vulnerability to a character that otherwise would be written off as a completely self-absorbed asshole. 

Every moment of Guadagnino’s filmmaking feels intentional, from the stolen glances the characters think no one else sees to the minor and careless moments of intimacy in the trio’s relationship and even the expert costume design from first-time head of costume department Jonathan Anderson. Most notable, however, is the score that seemingly underlines and amplifies each scene. 

Challengers: Trailer (MGM)

Guadagnino utilizes Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score during heated arguments between the three main players to let the audience know that the game has extended beyond the court. From the very beginning of the film, Tashi tells Patrick and Art tennis is more than a game, it’s a relationship between the players. In the most heated moments of the film between two characters, the pace of the score quickens and the camera begins to move as spectators’ heads would during a tennis match. It is the embodiment of a verbal rally and the audience watches it with as much anticipation as they would any of the scenes with actual tennis being played. 

Challengers is a triumph of filmmaking. The score pulsates throughout the movie, expertly accentuating performances from three of the most magnetic actors working today who are being guided by a director who understands young, raw talent like nobody else in the industry. Ultimately, it feels like Guadagnino wants the audience to leave the film on the same high that Tashi, Patrick and Art experience when they play tennis. At its core, Challengers is about three people who live to play tennis, deriving a real sense of identity, community and connection from the sport. They aren’t particularly skillful at those components of their personal lives, but on the court, they are undeniable masters.  

Challengers was released globally in theaters on April 26, 2024. Find out why Challengers has a perfect ending, explained in this article!

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