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‘Challengers’ SERVES

After attending an early screening of Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Challengers,’ I can confirm that this is the best movie ever made about three messy bitches.

Zendaya peaks over her sunglasses in MGM's 'Challengers' poster
Credit: MGM / Amazon Studios

In Challengers, love is always in the air, and probably not on the scoreboard. The film’s director, Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, Bones and All, We Are Who We Are), is in top form on this film. He starts by asking the question: What if the three messiest bitches you know were an All-Star tennis-player polycule? Challengers is his answer.

Stars Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor offer positively outstanding performances as the most unlikable people you will ever conceive of. Challengers (2024) is a disaster in the greatest possible way.

After recent success with Bones and All, it seems director Guadagnino has locked his style into place. He has been my favorite active director for a few years now. So, it is no surprise that his Challengers is my most anticipated release of 2024. Going into the early IMAX screening this Monday, I was terrified. I was haunted by the constant thought of Jesus Christ, what if it’s bad… as I sat through ten minutes of trailers.

The hype for Challengers has been massive since the holiday season. Every time I go to the movie theater, there’s a cardboard marquee up to advertise the film. Guadagnino has gained a larger cult following since the release of Bones and All in 2022. He has released solid hit after hit and remained a big presence in the eye of the art movie world since 2018.

Zendaya has easily seen the start of the biggest year of her career in 2024. Dune Part II is still showing at most major theaters. Her image is rendered absolutely everywhere from billboards to brand partnerships. It is hard to ignore Challengers. Which makes the possibility of the film outright bombing way scarier.

Tell Us If It’s Good Already…

A red screen at the film's end credit's that reads "Luca Gudagnino's Challengers"
IMAX Screen Lit Up With The Film’s Logo / Credit: Hailie Gold

The film seems to have a lot of elements that should not work together. Individually, all these pieces are great. The genres, sports, sex-comedy, drama, coming-of-age, romance, are all nice on their own. The actor lineup is incredible with Zendaya (Dune), Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown) all at the height of their successes.

In addition to the toast of art cinema at the top of the bill, the film features music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of industrial alternative band Nine Inch Nails. They are back with Guadagnino after the stunning work they did together on Bones and All, as well as being booked for his upcoming film Queer. The cinematography is by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who is, like Reznor and Ross, is a frequent Guadagnino collaborator. Guadagnino is an auteur that appears to enjoy collecting collaborators to use on films over and over again. If it ain’t broke…?

Somehow, Challengers pulls off being a hybrid sports-sex-comedy-drama-coming-of-age-romance flick that screened in IMAX and has a scene where a guy slaps another guy hard across the boner (you heard me). I am happy to report that not only is Challengers not bad, but instead a serve.

Mike Faist and Zendaya Lunching in 'Challengers'
Mike Faist and Zendaya Lunching in ‘Challengers’ / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Here’s What It’s About:

Challengers follows Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) who is a junior tennis professional way ahead on her game. She’s the top-of-the-top in the talent pool of early career female tennis pros in the early 2000s. She falls in, fortunately or unfortunately, with Art Donaldson (Faist) and Patrick Zweig (O’Connor). Art and Patrick are bunkmates and childhood best friends. They play tennis doubles together as the duo referred to as “Fire and Ice.”

And as luck always has it for blonde/brunette duos with years of tension, the boys both want one thing: Tashi. And to beat each other in tennis when they play singles. So, technically, they want two things. Maybe three…

Art is tightly-wound, polite and is naturally talented enough to not have to work hard for praise and success. Patrick is the easygoing lady’s man and full-time disaster, but the equivalent of a jet-engine on the court. Tashi is lovely force of nature who always knows how to get precisely what she wants. Things change for everyone when Tashi sustains a career-ending injury in college.

The trios lives are filtered through encounters exclusively involving tennis over the next decade or so. What is for certain is that they will all undo each other one way or another.

Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist and Zendaya all kiss in 'Challengers'
Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist and Zendaya in ‘Challengers’ / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

A Mostly Spoiler-Free Review of Challengers!

Like all of Luca Guadagnino’s movies, Challengers has a clear vision, or mise-en-scene, and sticks to it like glue. I think what makes his vision of a movie, specifically this movie, so successful is the obsessive attention to detail. The way he communicates his ideas and research to an art department is harmonious. This film is so concise and no details are left without a purpose.

For example, there is a scene in the first third of the film where a copy of The Great Gatsby can be spotted on Tashi’s desk. Be sure to look for it, because once you unlock the Gatsby symbolism in Challengers, it becomes more glaringly obvious. The film is kind of what would happen if Gatsby was a girl and couldn’t decide between Nick and Daisy. If Gatsby, Nick and Daisy were millennials that played tennis.

The Cinematography is Ace

As Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s parties as the vehicle for his storytelling, Challengers uses tennis. Really, it could be anything, but the sharply-penned script decides it is tennis that showcases the mess of their lives. Tennis echos the movie’s nightmare game of chase. It becomes the language of the film. Naturally, the actors were made to play tennis with pros to train for many moons prior to shooting.

Mike Faist and Zendaya Get News of a Career-Ending Injury in 'Challengers'
Mike Faist and Zendaya Get News of a Career-Ending Injury in ‘Challengers’ / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

I was unsure if the film was going to be worth it in IMAX. I would say that the screen size choice was due to the sports cinematography. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is a fantastic cinematographer so this movie being gorgeous is no surprise. What is surprising is how innovative the use of camera is.

Not only does the IMAX screen send the audience’s head left and right, and left and right, and back again like you would expect in a tennis match, but Mukdeeprom immerses the audience in the tennis match. The camera becomes the ball literally and figuratively.

The Performances Steal The Show

Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist are all veteran actors of some years considering how young they are. In terms of style, all of them give violently different performances. Again, like many things in the film, this should not work. It does, though.

Zendaya and O’Connor’s performances seem quite similar. Both of them were born and raised as screen actors. Zendaya is holding the film together. If the character of Tashi wasn’t perfectly cast, the film would have fallen flat. Tashi is the instigator in almost every dramatic situation, but she is also the most grounded energy in the trio. It’s Tashi’s court, the boys are just playing on it. Zendaya is at her best in Challengers. Out of everyone, Zendaya has to play the highest stakes and she soars.

O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig hits the screen like a fireball. He is destructive and truly out of control. If you love mess, you’ll love Patrick. Josh O’Connor plays the boy we all love, but learn to hate (and then think about what we did wrong to lose him at 3AM even though he sucks). He has a big presence that fills the screen, but his performance isn’t big enough to be distracting.

In every scene he is in, Patrick is the most alive and charismatic thing on screen. The only thing negatively arresting about his work is that the British star’s American dialect work is not perfect and gets messy when he becomes emotional.

Josh O'Connor and Zendaya Find Each Other 'Challengers' / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Josh O’Connor and Zendaya Find Each Other ‘Challengers’ / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Mike Faist’s performance is very different from those of the other two. Faist is a screen actor transplant from the world of stage acting. There is all this classic discourse about the acting performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and the difference between naturalist actors vs. the classic film actor audiences were then used to. Challengers feels like that.

Faist’s performance is extremely successful and feels lived in. His work cleaner, sharper and plays to the backrow more than most screen actors are used to doing. It is in stark contrast to Zendaya and O’Connor’s. All three performances are lovely when combined.

Genuine Connection

Not only are the performances good, but they are stronger together. The chemistry between these three actors is desperately real. Guadagnino painstakingly directed these sequences of careful intimacy. The way these characters breathe, touch (or don’t), and look at each other feels truthful. There is a moment where Patrick loops his foot around a barstool to pull Art closer in a way that feels like the things young people who have spent a lifetime together would do out of habit.

All three actors appear amazingly comfortable as a trio. Guadagnino has created three messy, miserable motherfuckers designed only for each other; no point in plaguing anyone else with their absurdity.

More Details That Make Challengers Pop

A detail that audiences expect to be good in every film that this one excels at is the sound mixing and editing. Though not usually not competitive Oscar Categories, Challengers deserves some love for how ridiculously good it sounds. It is a symphony of erotic, athletic chaos.

We are in the age of movies about athleticism once again. Late 2023 and 2024 have already seen The Iron Claw, Love Lies Bleeding, The Boys in the Boat, and many others about the feats of the human body. Challengers is in good company. It is not a just another sports movie, though, because of how alive it is. It is so unafraid of color, fashion, sports gear, style and sex.

Recently, many movies, TV shows and plays feel devoid of sexiness. There is no shortage of sex scenes in contemporary film, but few feel truly erotic, only transactional. Everything has been striped of thrill and chemistry. Not Luca Guadagnino’s pictures. Challengers has a short sex scene or three, but the scenes that actually feel hot and heavy are about some of the least sexy stuff. Like simple touches, and eye contact, sure. But mostly tennis.

Also, spitting gum into someone else’s hand. This movie is about what happens between the moments we are privy to. Challengers is charged.

Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist Bicker in 'Challengers' / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist Bicker in ‘Challengers’ / Credit: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Challengers is a hell of a movie. Symbolism, sex, sports and stupidity run wild in this incredibly entertaining, much anticipated 2024 release. Three people who have zero skills except hitting a ball with a racket gamble day-in-and-day-out with their personal lives. What could go wrong?

Does Challengers Really Have a Threesome In It?

Go see it for yourself ASAP and find out! Watch the trailer until then.

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twenty-three year old lover of film, books and rock n roll

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