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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘Challengers’ is sexy, sporty fun

Directed by “Call Me By Your Name’s” Luca Gaudagnino, “Challengers” follows a love triangle between three tennis professionals.

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“Challengers” — a new film starring Zendaya as tennis pro Tashi — is sexy, daring and weird. I have an inclination toward such movies, so it comes as no surprise that I loved this one. 

Directed by Luca Gaudagnino — of “Call Me by Your Name” — I anticipated a slightly more cerebral watch. Yet I left the Nugget Theaters and immediately declared: “I have nothing smart to say about this movie.” Days later, I’m still not sure what I — or “Challengers,” for that matter — has to say. With captivating performances, a killer soundtrack and cinematography that indulges completely in the film’s rich aesthetic landscape, “Challengers” gets away with a lack of intellectual depth. 

“Challengers” shifts between timelines, beginning with ex-tennis player Tashi coaching her husband Art Donaldson, a famous grand slam tennis professional. After losing several games, Tashi advises Art, played by Mike Faist, to enter a challenger tournament — considered a low-level, amateur event on the pro tour. At the challenger, Art advances to the finals, where he must play his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, failing tennis player Patrick Zweig. 

The narrative jumps back to high school, where Patrick — played by Josh O’Connor — and Art, both promising young tennis players, fight for Tashi’s attention. In one scene, Tashi sits in Art and Patrick’s shared hotel room with a boy to each side and proceeds to kiss them both. She then declares that she will give her number to whoever wins a tennis match the next day. Patrick wins — leading to him and Tashi dating into her first year at Stanford — but Art ultimately succeeds, forming a deeper relationship with Tashi after her traumatic knee injury. The two end up married with a child. The film is as much about tennis as it is about jealousy, desire and the impulse for control. Guadagnino brilliantly exposes the characters’ humanity through their faults. Despite Tashi’s $10,000 outfit or Art’s Aston Martin brand deal, “Challengers” reduces each character to a petty, vain, self-indulgent teenager. 

Throughout “Challengers,” Tashi — demanding and manipulative — calls the shots. While both Zweig and O’Connor provide good performances, Zendaya brings a much-needed dynamism to her role. Her charisma adds dimension to Tashi’s faults — viewers can easily understand why both Patrick and Art fall madly in love with her. By the end of the film, Tashi’s sense of control unravels as she realizes that neither her external nor internal worlds can be entirely mastered. She desires Patrick despite being married to Art, who she does not respect. She is unable to dictate the results of Art’s tennis games — particularly frustrating when he plays against Patrick. Tashi, governed by a neurotic compulsion toward controlling her life, ultimately fails to maintain a perfect facade.

This internal tension manifests in the overall rhythm of the film, which lunges between turmoil and the placid surface of the wealthy tennis world. The courts gleam in the sun. Tashi wears a gold Cartier bracelet and a steamed tennis skirt. But there also seems to be a dark center to “Challengers” — one that Guadagnino never fully reveals. It’s frenetic and strange. High-synth beats, composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, fill the score. When Tashi cheats on Art with Patrick, a glaring red light drenches the scene as wind beats against the car window. A series of turbulent, roughly-cut shots dominates the tennis matches, a product of the film’s creative editing. One moment, the camera lingers for too long on the tennis ball. The next, Patrick serves it and the camera follows, spinning and airborne.

The result of this dance between the polished veneer of the film’s world and its hypnotic chaos is at once off-putting and thrilling. An eroticism charges each scene. One user on the film review app Letterboxd writes of the movie: “Everything is sex, except sex, which is tennis.” Guadagnino indeed composes an analogy between sex and tennis, explicitly delineated by Tashi’s declaration that “Tennis is a relationship.” Guadagnino capitalizes on the inherent intimacy of a tennis match — a shared, hours-long back-and-forth between two players. Inversely, the film’s intimate scenes feel like a competition, a wrestling for control in which there are winners and there are losers. In one moment, a teenaged Tashi chooses who to kiss first. In another, she jumps up from bed when she grows upset at Patrick, who waits, dejected, on the covers. 

This consistent comparison is precisely what makes “Challengers” so fun, imbuing the film with a sensual, captivating tone. Guadagnino renders the entire movie literally and figuratively glazed in a summer sweat. Everyone is gorgeous, well-dressed and obsessive. But, ultimately, what is Guadagnino asserting through this analogy? The director seems to consider power in regards to the politics of sex and tennis — both, in “Challengers,” portrayed as games of control — but never articulates a coherent reflection. 

The film displays an unwillingness to fully dive into its various themes. Despite many homoerotic moments, “Challengers” never directly addresses any desire or relationship between Patrick and Art. Guadagnino gestures toward race, class and sexuality without a substantive meditation on any of these matters. It’s consistent with the film’s overall character: teeming with innuendos, tension and unresolved endings. After all, the film ends during the middle of a game between Patrick and Art, with the winner undecided.

The point of “Challengers” is not to deliver a neat message. Rather, Guadagnino provides handfuls of exquisite imagery, palpable chemistry and unstable characters cloaked in fabulous outfits. This is all to say, “Challengers” succeeds only if you don’t take it too seriously. Revel — alongside Guadagnino — in the film’s sheer, decadent fun. 

Rating: ★★★★☆