CHALLENGERS is billed as “a very sexy movie”. And it is, though that is not what makes director Luca Guadagnino’s latest effort so compelling. Tennis is the headliner --- bringing the three main characters, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), together --- but Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay takes the audience past the sport into the complicated lives of these overly competitive friends.


Patrick and Art have been best buddies and tennis geeks since the age of 12 when they were roommates at a tennis boarding school. At 18, following a sought-after victory in doubles, Patrick and Art meet the renowned tennis star, Tashi, also eighteen. The two guys are immediately smitten with the beautiful and fiercely competitive prodigy.


She is equally drawn to them but professes --- several times actually --- that she doesn’t want to be a “homewrecker”. Tashi senses that these two young men have a stronger bond than they are willing to concede. And she proves it. But that doesn’t stop her from initially falling for Patrick. They begin a relationship which doesn’t last because of Patrick’s narcissism --- and Tashi’s tennis- ending accident.


CHALLENGERS’ storyline is very nonlinear, so when 13 years have passed and Patrick and Art meet again in a low-level ‘Challenger’ event, Art and Tashi are married with a young daughter and Patrick is living in his car.


Art has gone on to become one of the top 5 players in the world, winning everything except the U.S. Open. He’s only participating in this challenger at the behest of Tashi, who knows he needs this small win to boost his waning confidence. Patrick is here because he’s trying to regain status in the tennis world.


The intense match between these two former best friends brings many old issues to light, including Tashi’s feelings for Patrick. Her utter disdain for her former lover is slowly turning into something else. And as all three deal with their present life choices, each must grapple with the undetermined outcome of this metaphorical tennis match.


Guadagnino does a splendid job directing these three very accomplished young actors. He had already established himself as a director of note when he helmed CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and made Timothée Chalamet a breakout star. Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist generate incredible chemistry and their onscreen presence is responsible for the film’s “sexy” description.


Zendaya has certainly established herself as a versatile actor, with the ability to take on demanding roles. She’s perfectly cast as the powerful and controlling Tashi. And the fact that as Tashi she generates a sexual bond with both Patrick and Art is impressive. It’s a very effective and stylized performance.


O’Connor is great. I have been a fan since he played Larry in “The Durrells in Corfu” (2016). He exudes that magnetic confidence and charm --- and is also very comedic, since there is plenty of humor in CHALLENGERS. Faist plays Art with a fair amount of vulnerability, making his character more susceptible to disappointment and rejection. Both O’Connor and Faist are stellar in their portrayals.


What CHALLENGERS also gets right is the tennis action. Cinematographer Sayonbhu Mukdeeprom does a marvelous job capturing the intensity of the matches, especially the long-overdue one between Patrick and Art.

It’s riveting.


And lastly, CHALLENGERS boasts an amazing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The two-time Oscar winners have created a techno-based soundtrack that enhances the action on screen in a new and exciting way.


Opinion: See It Now!





CHALLENGERS is not actually a tennis movie. Better to call it a complex character study about three people whose lives are intertwined against a background of tennis. The only thing missing is John McEnroe, although one of the characters gives his racket such a thrashing that McEnroe, known for being penalized for “racket abuse”, certainly comes to mind.


CHALLENGERS is punctuated by three fine performances from Zendaya (fresh off her strong performance in DUNE 2), Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”) and Mike Faist (WEST SIDE STORY). Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is a superb tennis player until an injury ends her career. Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) is a fading pro who can’t even offer a valid credit card to pay for a motel stay. Art Donaldson (Faist) is a high-ranking professional at the end of his career who is seeking one last chance to capture an elusive U.S. Open title.


We do believe that they all care deeply for one another, even in the face of a pivotal match between Patrick and Art. Friends since the age of 12, Patrick and Art show a brief physical attraction for one another even as they both desire Tashi.


As important as the acting is in CHALLENGERS, it is vital that all three leads look like they can handle a tennis racket. And the action on the court is totally credible. Zendaya spent three months with former pro Brad Gilbert, and it shows with her powerful but graceful tennis strokes.


Gilbert, who became a professional coach after his playing days, gets rave reviews from world-renowned players like Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick who both soared to number one in the world under Gilbert’s tutelage.


CHALLENGERS is filmed in nonlinear sequence. Working with first-time feature film writer Justin Kuritzkes, director Luca Guadagnino enlisted two-time Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who conceived a techno-based soundtrack to accompany the sometimes-frenzied action. The director says he desired his viewing audiences to dance --- or at least want to --- as they watched his film.


One thing is clear --- you don’t have to be a tennis buff to be entertained with CHALLENGERS. On that point, as someone who grew up playing and watching a great deal of tennis, I have one minor gripe, namely that the spectators cheer a bit too vociferously when one of the players commits a double fault. And the visual effect of the stroked balls zooming out of the screen towards the audience is overused.


CHALLENGERS is not without tennis humor. For example, during the pivotal match between Patrick and Art, the crowd around Tashi, as one would expect, looks alternately left and right as they follow the action on the court. Tashi, on the other hand, stares straight ahead, as she watches her former lover duke it out with her husband.


A less than conclusive conclusion may not satisfy every CHALLENGERS’ audience. However, upon reflection, it is probably the only way the story could possibly end.


Opinion:  See It Now!