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Impassioned sports drama “Challengers” serves up love and tennis

The official movie poster for Luca Guadagnino’s newest film “Challengers,” released in theaters on April 22. PUBLIC DOMAIN

This review contains spoilers.

In a world where sex is tennis and tennis is everything, there is no lack of power plays and passion that drive the leading trio to compete for their perfect match on and off the court in “Challengers.” Director Luca Guadagnino’s newest film is one of the most titillating and highly-anticipated of the year and has been a box office hit thus far. “Challengers” aces the cinematography, soundtrack and portrayal of the three-way relationship between the three main characters. However, the film falls flat in fully fleshing out each character, failing to demonstrate the social adversities overcome by its characters.

In her debut leading role on the silver screen, Zendaya stuns as the ruthless and competitive Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy who is unable to continue playing after a career-ending injury. In her formative years, Tashi meets two fellow junior tennis stars: Patrick Zweig, played by “The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor, and Art Donaldson, played by Broadway alumnus Mike Faist. After a rendezvous in a hotel room — which establishes a one-off sexual history between the boys and kick-starts a sexual love triangle between the leading three — the tension-fueled game for love commences.

“Challengers” marks yet another Guadagnino film revolving around intense romantic storylines. The palpable tension between Tashi, Art and Patrick is perfectly set in place alongside the kinesthetics of tennis — their bodies and emotions are always in motion and competing against one another. While the movie is inherently sultry, there are no explicit sex scenes. Instead, these characters express their deepest desires and fantasies through tennis, which is sometimes the only commonality among them.

“Challengers” differs from Guadagnino’s past works such as “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) and “Bones and All” (2022) by prioritizing audience appeal over fully executing the plot. While the entirety of “Challengers” is riveting, a close examination reveals the lack of fully developed, likable characters and societal commentary that could have led to more meaningful interpretations of the film. This is especially true in the case of Tashi, who is being embraced both as a “female anti-hero” and a “terrible” and “delusional” character.

For instance, there are a few references to Tashi’s family not being very wealthy compared to Art’s and Patrick’s families, who could afford to send them to boarding school for tennis. Besides the moment where Tashi calls out Patrick for acting like a down-on-his-luck tennis player despite coming from wealth, there are no further comments on social class and the economics of tennis. Even after Tashi accumulates wealth, as Patrick predicts earlier in the film, her newfound financial safety is unexplored, which causes her success arc to fall flat.

Likewise, Tashi’s race is criminally neglected in this film. Other than two minimal comments about race spoken by Tashi — one about her opponent Anna Mueller being a racist, and one about her taking good care of her “white boys,” Art and Patrick — the conversation of race is minimized to one-off quips by Tashi as if to include some form of commentary but still maintain the film as apolitical.

Despite screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes claiming “it was important for Tashi to be a Black woman,” this “importance” is not explored. Kuritzkes acknowledges that Black women have been the leaders of American tennis for decades, likely referring to players like Serena Williams and Coco Gauff. Williams and Gauff have often had to face social inequities on and off the court, similar to what Tashi alludes to in her few comments about such issues.

Tennis is perceived as one of the most pretentious sports. Considering that Tashi is a lower- or middle-class woman of color, it is an odd choice by Guadagnino and Kuritzkes to not create space for Tashi’s growth after facing the adversity of her injury, financial struggles and racial conflicts.

The film is victorious, however, in its efforts to cater to the audience and portray the story in a satisfactory and aesthetically pleasing manner, despite the lack of character development.

The kinetics of tennis and love are replicated in the camera work, with unique angles and perspectives that are constantly in motion. Whether the audience is positioned as the tennis ball flying across the court, looking through Patrick’s eyes as he finishes a set against Art (and vice versa) or having beads of sweat drip from Art’s body onto the camera lens, the audience becomes intimately involved in the character’s lives.

Guadagnino relies on nonlinear storytelling in “Challengers,” dramatically shifting between the challenger between Art and Patrick and the most essential parts of their backstories to paint a full picture of the stakes of the final match. While time jumps in some films can be difficult to follow, there are unspoken implications that lend heavily to the audience’s understanding of what is happening and when.

The most poignant indicator of the film’s time jumps is the appearance of each character: Art’s boyish, shaggy blond hair is chopped shorter to show his age and Patrick’s beard indicates the present-day 2019 in which the film takes place. Tashi’s hair is also a giveaway with the timing of the movie, as her hair progressively becomes shorter as time goes on. However, close watchers of the film will also notice the extra jewelry adorned by Tashi as time goes on: Art’s grandmother’s white gold engagement ring, a friendship bracelet with her daughter’s name on it and a Cartier necklace.

The addition of such accessories serves as more than time stamps, however. I believe that these pieces solve the debate of which of the guys is “Fire” and which one is “Ice,” as Tashi calls them upon first meeting them. Art’s demeanor and addition of a white gold ring to Tashi’s wardrobe point to him being “ice;” he has a cooler and calmer attitude and does not challenge Tashi the way that Patrick does. Patrick is more passionate in his relationship with Tashi and continues to press her buttons long after he is out of their lives for good (except in the Atlanta meetup, of course). Also, Patrick continues to win against Art in all of their tennis challenges and in their efforts to get Tashi — implicating Patrick as gold and Art as silver, just like competition medals.

One of the most applauded aspects of the film has to be its soundtrack, headed by musician and producer Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails’ singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Ross and Reznor have created and compiled music that beautifully demonstrates the stakes of each moment in the film; and, who better than the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails to contribute to such a passionate, sensual movie?

Every song is rooted in techno basslines that pulsate on and off the tennis court and reverberate within each audience member. The bouncing beats that amplify during the most strategic, important scenes mimic the sounds of a tennis ball against a court. The score certainly seems to agree with Art’s idea of tennis being a game about winning the most important points considering the timing in which the catchy beats make their appearance.

The film is all about the implied, which is where the visuals and music establish themselves as game-changing. It may also explain why Tashi did not have more dramatic, socially conscious monologues or moments of revelation. Instances such as Patrick’s smirks on and off the tennis court, the placement of the tennis ball in the throat of the racket and the traces of cinnamon-sugar Art leaves on Patrick’s face in the now-infamous churro scene are what make the movie so powerful and lead us to fall in love with each character despite their flaws.

The trio’s communication fails on nearly all counts, which is where tennis comes in: the sport serves as their space for honesty, revelations and true love. They know each others’ weaknesses, strengths and quirks on the court but are unable to reflect on these aspects of themselves and each other off the court.

Tennis so deeply reflects their relationships that the challengers match mirrors the exact progression of the boys’ chances at “winning” Tashi: the first set is won by Patrick who dates Tashi first, the second set is won by Art who winds up marrying Tashi and the tiebreaker in the third set ends on a much-debated cliffhanger wherein the boys seem to have finally gotten a chance to work out their differences. An optimistic perspective of the ending sees Art and Patrick winning their friendship back and Tashi screaming “come on” not because of who won, but because she finally got to see her boys play “real tennis.”

“Challengers” is proving to be the steamy tennis romantic drama of the summer. It is hard to resist the intensity between each character in the trailer alone, making it a must-see on the big screen. While the film failed to fully flesh out its three leading characters, this seems to not have been the goal for Guadagnino and company. This film is a champion in its exhilarating filming, pumping soundtrack and electrically-impassioned three-way relationship. I’d say Guadagnino’s “Challengers” earns nine “Yeahs” out of 10.

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About the Contributor
Olivia Erndl
Olivia Erndl, Copy Chief
Olivia is the Copy Chief of The Statesman, as well as an occasional Opinions writer. She previously served as an Assistant Copy Chief and a Copy Intern. She is a junior English Teacher Preparation major in the English Honors Program. She is also a member of the Alpha Nu Zeta English Honor Society at Stony Brook. When she is not editing, you can find Olivia listening to music or hanging out with her cat.
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