“Challengers”: An ace of a film

Confused yet curious thoughts for the unsettling tennis drama from Luca Guadagnino.
During the youth era of the film, characters Art and Tashi discuss an upcoming college tennis match (Photo courtesy of IMDB).
During the youth era of the film, characters Art and Tashi discuss an upcoming college tennis match (Photo courtesy of IMDB).

★★★★

With a story written by newcomer Justin Kuritzkes and direction from Luca Guadagnino, “Challengers” premiered in theaters April 26, catching the attention of moviegoers alike.

 

Originally thought up as only a screenplay, “Challengers” was picked up by Amazon MGM studios in February 2022, with Zendaya, Josh O’Conner and Mike Faist to star as the film’s three primary leads. The film also had some brief virality in June 2023 due to a controversial trailer starring the three actors.

Anticipated to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2023, “Challengers” was delayed as a result of the, at the time, ongoing actors strike and was pushed back to March 2024, where it premiered in Australia and received a widespread theatrical release in April 2024.

The story is set in the world of professional tennis, and follows the world renowned tennis champion Art Donaldson (played by Faist) alongside his wife and coach Tashi (played by Zendaya) as he prepares for a career grand slam after being injured for some time. To help ease him into competing at the professional level, she enters him in a challenger level tournament where he is forced to face Tashi’s ex-boyfriend and his estranged childhood friend and rival Patrick Zweig (played by O’Conner).

“Challengers” is an enjoyable watch for anyone, regardless of one’s level of tennis knowledge, though occasionally the jargon does go a little crazy. It has a deep, strange, and compelling character dynamics and one of the most unique plots demonstrated in recent years. Even though it may be a movie about tennis, at its core the film is a messy relationship drama and uses the medium of a tennis match to explore the trio’s dynamics brilliantly.

(Trailer courtesy of MGM).

The dynamic sets the frame for the film’s non-linear narrative, helping the story to progress in an interesting and unique way. Having it set in both the past and present throughout the films runtime builds each character dynamic even further. While the present time frame on the surface showcases a tense tennis match between the two rivals, the past introduces each character and helps put the conflict of the match in context in an interesting and unique way. This fact ultimately helping to build up the final event of the film, as it consistently hearkens back to prior dramas in a constant stream.

The film also makes use of cinematography in a new and unique form. Shots peering in on characters often feel voyeuristic and help to build tension throughout each shot in a creative way. Another form of camera angle being implemented into the film, may have been a first ever for cinema.

Around halfway through the film, during the intense match, all of a sudden the camera switches to a first person point of view that really helped to show the urgency between the two pros. It was interesting to study each movement during this time and eventually, a couple scenes later, it switches to the balls point of view which was insane. The camera ends up being smacked across the court and oddly enough was kind of humorous, even though it most likely was meant to further anxiety, as during the shot the two rivals were tied at game point.

That isn’t to say that every aspect of “Challengers” was amazing. The character dynamics at many points were confusing and were actually harmed a little from the nonlinear narrative despite the fact that it helped move the plot along. Tashi’s relationship with both her husband and her ex-boyfriend contradicted itself at numerous times throughout the film, and just didn’t make sense at times, especially towards the end of the movie. The dynamics relied too heavily on context and the film suffered as a whole from the fact.

In the end, “Challengers” is a messy, yet beautiful film and a pleasant surprise in the sea of Hollywood blockbusters. It provides a unique, interesting conflict and furthers director Luca Guadagnino’s abstract storytelling after films like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Bones and All“.

It is without a doubt a film that all should see if they enjoy tennis, cinematography or interesting and distinct character dynamics.

 

 

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  • Mr. AielloMay 2, 2024 at 10:48 am

    Just got the pun. Great title. Good review as well, but really love the title.