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Zendaya Stars In Luca Guadagnino’s Tennis Dramedy


In Challengers, Luca Guadagnino serves up a film that is as much about the volleys of human emotion as it is about the physical rallies on the tennis court.

Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist and penned by Justin Kuritzkes, the film explores the complexities of love, friendship and competition through the lens of a sport that mirrors the finesse and intensity required in personal relationships as the narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks that show us the origins of these relationships during their high school years and how a love triangle disrupts their friendship. 

Set against the backdrop of professional tennis, Challengers opens on a match between Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Faist), watched intensely by Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) from the stands. The tension is palpable, hinting at a shared history that the film soon unpacks, tracing back to the trio’s younger years. The film cleverly uses the sport as a metaphor for the characters’ interpersonal dynamics. 

Art and Patrick, best friends since their youth, find their bond tested not just by their competitive natures but also by their mutual affection for Tashi. At this juncture, she emerges as a formidable contender in the tennis arena, her prowess on the court both awe-inspiring and intimidating to Patrick and Art. Her singular dedication to the sport is conveyed with a mix of humor and stern dismissal as she rebuffs their awkward advances, making it abundantly clear that tennis is her only love. This initial interaction, played for laughs, foreshadows the complex dynamics that later unfold. 

The narrative escalates when, under a guise of coercion, the duo persuades Tashi to join them in their hotel room, only for her to humorously misinterpret their intentions, asserting, “I’m not a homewrecker,” upon misconstruing their friendship as romance. Tashi, while maintaining a relationship with Patrick through college, faces a career-ending, pivotal moment that sees Art stepping in as her steadfast supporter. This incident deeply affects the trio, particularly altering the course of Patrick and Art’s friendship as they navigate the complications of love, loyalty and personal aspirations into their adult lives.

Kuritzkes’ script shines in its character development, allowing the trio to be fully realized individuals who are aware of their flaws and desires. The dialogue is sharp and observes the parallels between tennis strategies and the characters’ maneuverings in love and life, displaying the unpredictable, back-and-forth nature of a tennis match. However, the film’s pace suffers from its structural choices. The frequent time jumps, while ambitious, sometimes slow the momentum, making the viewing experience feel choppy. This nonlinear approach, though thematically relevant, required a more deft handling to maintain a steady narrative flow. 

Zendaya’s Tashi is an intimidating presence, both on and off the court. She navigates her role with a compelling mix of strength and sophistication, and portraying Tashi as a catalyst in Art and Patrick’s lives giving her the role of attractor, antagonist and trickster. Her performance is physically convincing and emotionally resonant, highlighting her character’s strategic mind and complex emotions. O’Connor and Faist bring a palpable chemistry that transcends simple rivalry, suggesting a deeper, almost symbiotic relationship shaped by years of friendship and competition. Their interactions encapsulate the film’s central premise that love and rivalry are not mutually exclusive but are instead two sides of the same coin.

Visually, Guadagnino pays homage to ’80s sports films through a stylistic execution that captures the era’s vibrant energy but occasionally feels misplaced in the context of the film’s more serious themes. The direction, while striking, is less confident than in his previous works, with an unsteady hand that sometimes falters in maintaining the tension. An aspect that does bode well in Challengers is the exploration of male vulnerability, a recurring theme in his filmography. He portrays his male characters with a poignant rawness, capturing their emotional and physical nakedness without sensationalism.

RELATED: ‘Challengers’ Clip: Zendaya Curves Advances From Josh O’Connor & Mike Faist In Latest Look At Luca Guadagnino’s Tennis Drama

Musically, Challengers hits a few flat notes. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, typically a highlight, feels oddly juxtaposed against the film’s visual and emotional landscape with its ’80s synth-pop elements. At times, it enhances the scenes’ emotional depth, but more often it distracts, undermining the subtlety of the performances and the intimacy of the moments.

Challengers ambitiously attempts to weave complex threads through the metaphor of tennis, exploring themes of love, rivalry and personal growth. While it stumbles in its pacing and musical choices, the performances, particularly by Zendaya, and the chemistry between O’Connor and Faist keep the audience engaged. It’s a flawed but deeply human film that showcases Guadagnino’s persistent quest to probe the depths of emotional entanglements. It might not serve an ace with every shot, but it certainly keeps the viewer gripped until the game set match. 

Title: Challengers
Distributor: MGM
Release date: April 26, 2024
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: Justin Kuritzkes
Cast: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist
Rating: R
Running time: 2 hr 11 min



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