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CHALLENGERS

ZENDAYA, FAIST, O'CONNOR: ALL IS COMPLICATED IN LOVE AND TENNIS

THEATRICAL REVIEW
LATEST REVIEWS
By Liz Chan
13th April 2024

With a debut trailer set to the pulsing rhythm of Rihanna's 'S&M' while Zendaya delivers the line, "I'm taking such good care of my little white boys," Luca Guadagino's 'Challengers' was set to smash the internet from day one.

When the end credits started rolling, I wished I could rewind the film and play it again. Like watching the playback of a sports goal, I needed to relive the journey I had just been on – to rewatch the highlights, reanalyse the players, and see how they pulled that off. 'Challengers' is an absolute ace in the filmography of the cast and crew, proving the internet mania warranted and the Hollywood star status of Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor (the white boys in question) secured. Bringing us a decade-spanning journey of heartbreak and competition in both love and tennis, Guadagnino ('Bones and All', 'Call Me By Your Name') is at his best yet. I've never been more locked in during a 2024 film yet.

'Challengers' follows the love triangle between tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan (Zendaya, TV's 'Euphoria', Netflix's 'Malcolm & Marie') and the soft-spoken Art (Mike Faist, 'West Side Story') and ambitious Patrick (Josh O'Connor, Netflix's 'The Crown', 'God's Own Country'). First meeting as teenagers, Tashi is amused to find tennis partners and best friends Art and Patrick equally besotted with her. By tennis partners and best friends, I mean they play doubles with almost telepathic teamwork. By equally besotted, I mean they're willing to hook up with Tashi simultaneously if it means getting to hook up with her at all. It's clear Tashi is ultimately more interested in the thrill of the competition, though, as she first chooses Patrick based on his tennis skills compared to Art.

SWITCH: 'CHALLENGERS' TRAILER

The trio's dynamic is forever changed when Tashi suffers a devastating injury in college that puts professional tennis out of the picture. Over a decade later, an adult Tashi finds herself operating as the head coach and wife of now pro player Art. As she pushes him to play a low-stakes challenger event for a confidence boost, things take an unexpected turn when the player on the opposite side of the net is none other than Patrick, a now-disillusioned tennis player hungry for a career comeback.

I will confess that my tennis knowledge extends to Wii Sports (may she rest in peace) and Taylor Swift's music video for 'The Man'. Needless to say, I am no technical tennis expert. 'Challengers', however, reaches beyond the screen and pulls you right onto the court with the players – no tennis manual required. Guadagino's direction, paired with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cinematography ('Call Me By Your Name') harnesses the intense nature of pro sports and imbues it in every frame. Remember when I said I've never been more locked in on a film this year? Tennis balls whiz so dangerously close to the camera that it feels like the angsty teenage Tashi is trying to kill you with them. Shots pan from the sprawling tennis court to a close-up of the players, a sly invitation into their exclusive bubble. If that isn't enough, Guadagino's intense third act brings point-of-view shots that see us become the players themselves - playing as Art, playing as Patrick, playing as the racquet with Mike Faist dripping sweat on you (like, directly). Have you ever wanted to experience being a tennis ball hurtling through the air? It's your lucky day. Any fun shot Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom can dream up, they're doing it. Aided by Marco Costa's sharp editing ('Bones and All'), 'Challengers' is an immersive experience.

Guadagnino has historically never been afraid to get a little freaky (see: 'Bones and All', a romance between two young cannibals). 'Challengers' is a wickedly sexy story, full of the melodrama of a messy love triangle – Tashi-Patrick, Patrick-Art and Tashi-Art. The relationship between the players and tennis can even be considered romantic. Best articulated by Zendaya in a recent Vogue interview, tennis is Tashi's first love, with her romantic escapades being an avenue to keep playing after she can't play the sport anymore.

Not all love stories are perfect though, and the piece in 'Challengers' that did not entirely work for me was the use of the electronic house music score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross ('Soul', 'Bones and All'). At its best moments, it perfectly drives the intensity of the couples on and off the court. At its worst moments, it is a buzzing third wheel needlessly butting into moments, like a random invasive guy at the club.

'Challengers' is a wickedly sexy story, full of the melodrama of a messy love triangle – Tashi-Patrick, Patrick-Art and Tashi-Art. The relationship between the players and tennis can even be considered romantic.

We're set up to expect romantic drama and "some good fucking tennis" (Tashi's words, not mine) going into 'Challengers'. If that isn't clear yet, we get both in abundance. The most unexpectedly delightful thing about 'Challengers', however, is how funny it is. Justin Kuritzkes' script, which landed on the 2021 Black List (an industry-acclaimed list of the best unproduced Hollywood screenplays), is supported by O'Connor and Faist's chemistry-filled comedic timing. Together, they deliver brilliant pockets of dark humour that pop against an angst-ridden story. Kuritizkes' script is riveting and near-perfect, besides the confusing time jumps that occur every few scenes with a new title card. The time-jump confusion of 'Tenet' (2020) and 'Little Women' (2019) had a beautiful baby – awwww, welcome to the world, 'Challengers'! I quickly learnt that letting the film unravel itself was better than trying to pierce together the fractured timeline.

The core of 'Challengers' is its leading trio, who all serve strong performances, with no one a weak link. Starting with the actor whose work I admittedly am the least familiar with, I found Josh O'Connor's performance as the fallen-off yet ambitious tennis player Patrick great – bouncing from someone to root for and hate in a matter of minutes. I'm looking forward to discovering more of his filmography after this. I would place chips on Mike Faist's 2024 Academy Award Campaign (and he's already halfway with an EGOT at 32). Following his work on Broadway in 'Newsies' and 'Dear Evan Hansen', it's nice to see him finally shoulder a significant on-screen leading role as the love-lorn Art. Faist gave my favourite performance with how he carried some of the most emotional scenes.

Ultimately, 'Challengers' is a Zendaya movie through and through. The film's characters are nowhere without Tashi's impact, their worlds spinning in orbit around her. As someone who grew up watching Zendaya on Disney Channel's 'KC Undercover', I was initially startled to see her play a character with a grown child in 'Challengers'. While her transition to "adult" roles has been in motion for a while, from 'Euphoria' (2019–Present) and 'Malcolm & Marie' (2021) to the recent box office smash hit 'Dune: Part Two' (2024), it is at its smoothest here. Her performance as the wildly conflicted Tashi is captivating and a reminder of her star power and talent. Marking her first cinematic producing credit, 'Challengers' sees her collaborating with costume designer Jonathan Anderson from Loewe and dressed in gorgeous outfits.

Initially delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strikes, 'Challengers' is set for Australian release on 18 April. Equally intense and fun, it is a character-driven story told in the most captivating visual way. More than anything, 'Challengers' is a calling card for Zendaya, Faist and O'Connor, showcasing their craft and setting them on the path of 2020's film icon status.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 18/04/2024
CAST: Zendaya
Mike Faist
Josh O'Connor
Faith Fay
Jake Jensen
Scottie Digiacomo
Joe Curtin
A.j. Lister
Cornel Bradford
Keanu Ham
DIRECTOR: Luca Guadagnino
WRITER: Justin Kuritzkes
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