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CHALLENGERS - Spoiler Free Review

First things first—Challengers is a festival movie, not a blockbuster. Which means almost every technical and artistic aspect of this film is avant-garde; not basic, not cheesy and certainly not predictable. Genius director Luca Guadagnino is no stranger to exploring the atypical but spends this runtime taking risk after risk in order to serve up a film that feels so fresh, so original and so seductive that even in its unsexiest moments audiences are still somehow roused. 

Challengers follows Tashi, Art and Patrick—three tennis players who grow up with the same desire to play the sport they love professionally. Although Art and Patrick have grown up together and are essentially brothers, they meet Tashi at eighteen when the three of them have spent their childhoods in the world of courts and rackets. Tashi is unlike anything these boarding school boys have ever encountered. She’s incredibly talented, unapologetically powerful and the most beautiful woman either of them have ever seen. It’s evident from the very first moment that a burning desire for her blooms within both of them and Tashi… well, she happens to desire more from life in every regard. More success than the regular player, more fame than the regular star and more attention than the regular girl. Naturally, the boys willingly fall into her orbit… remaining under her spell for over a decade afterward. What begins as an innocent love triangle becomes a wickedly tense cycle of love, sex and duplicity that spans over years. And although they began their story as best friends, the start of the film introduces us to Art and Patrick not only as enemies… but opponents. During a small town challenger, after over a decade of sexual tension, red hot jealousy and betrayals, the boys find themselves competing for a tennis title one last time… and for the heart of the girl who first tore them apart. 

To make the experience of watching this film easy to understand, imagine yourself as the tennis ball being swatted back and forth through the past and present… witnessing the events leading up to the challenger that will decide all of their fates. Tashi, wise and intelligent despite her unflinching narcissism, tells the boys on that very first night exactly what tennis is: a relationship. And if nothing else, that is what the three of them share. A messy one. 

This film is fun, exciting and has some endearing sequences. It is a great example of how a film can be sexy without showing any sex on screen. Guadagnino flexes his collaborative talents with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me By Your Name) and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), adding a particular style and flair to otherwise intimate sequences. Everything feels like a game, every conversation a rally, every look a tight, crisp, speedy serve. This movie is far from boring and keeps your eyes peeled on the screen until the very last moment. There are a few scenes where the music plays so loudly it's difficult to hear the characters speaking, however the versatility of this score cannot be overlooked. It’s poignant, abstract and brings multiple genres and styles together to tell a singular story within a binary film. As for the cinematography, the camera work and colouring is nothing short of impressive. But the standout artistry of this film beyond the brilliant direction is in its performances. 

Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are no strangers to indie cinema but have managed to deliver something we haven’t quite seen before from either of them. They are the antithesis of the other, but in a way that doesn’t feel as though they are truly opposites—because they aren’t. They are the same in their boyish love for Tashi, and yet different in how they explore it. Zendaya, however, does not play Tashi with any sort of malleability. She is a steady force, a hammer to two nails, a cold shot of whiskey, a sharp slap to the face. And it works. This is Zendaya like we’ve never seen her before—she’s deeply toxic and so sensual audiences can practically feel the crackling of electricity every time she appears on screen. Without her, this movie would be fun, sexy and exciting. But with her, it is all those things as well as powerful and unforgettable. These performances cannot be overlooked and thanks to the masterful collaboration between Kuritzkes’ writing and Guadagino’s direction, they are nuanced enough that audiences will spend the rest of the year arguing over who the villain of this movie really is. 

The ending of this film is worth the borderline tortuous teasing, the will-they-won’t-they, the toe curling anticipation, the racing heartbeats and the shortness of breath. MGM’s Challengers is a must see this summer and 2024 officially belongs to Zendaya Coleman. 


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