Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers opens in an intentionally disorienting manner: We are in New Rochelle, New York for a tennis challenger. Wearing cheap shorts that resemble boxers, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) battles Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), clad in head-to-toe Uniqlo, while the glamorous Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya) watches tensely from the stands. Flashbacks, first from a few days prior, and then way back to 13 years ago, slowly fill in the gaps on how these two former best friends ended up in such a position: playing against one another in a mid-tier tennis challenger comically sponsored by a tire brand. 

Even as Challengers zips back and forth in time with boundless energy, the narrative, to Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes’ credit, is never hard to follow. Sometimes the foreknowledge afforded by time jumps end up sacrificing drama, but in Challengers this sacrifice makes space for us to feel the burden of these broken relationships. We understand the trio’s entangled histories deeply, and where they end up plays more tragically. 

An early “13 years ago” flashback drops us headfirst into the U.S. Open Juniors doubles final in which teenage Zweig and Donaldson make easy work of their competition. There’s an effortlessness to how they play together, and their off-court bond is even stronger. Like the pair’s differing outfits in the opening, the contrast with the present-day tire challenger is simple and effective. Relaxing in the bleachers after their win, they first encounter Tashi taking the court, and she captures their hearts (and the audience’s) immediately. Guadagnino frames Zendaya with real verve, utilizing every tool at his disposal to foreground her star power, including a pulsating techno score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which is their most inspired work in some time. 

Guadagnino has always possessed an understanding for the subtleties of young love, and the subsequent meetcute where Zweig and Donaldson simultaneously court Tashi is a highlight. Tashi finds the odd pair amusing; while they clearly have game, they are no match for her. If they might be their own planets, Tashi is the sun which they hopelessly revolve around. A key difference between Zweig and Donaldson throughout Challengers is Zweig’s delusional insistence on his own agency regarding Tashi, whereas Donaldson accepts his second-tier status to her.

After a melancholic role in Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, O’Connor gains much mileage from his all-knowing smile, which, understanding its effect on the recipient, he deploys often in Challengers. Next to Zendaya and O’Connor, Faist might seem the odd man out, but the West Side Story breakout more than holds his own, embodying the driven, less self-destructive Art, who will do anything for his wife. The trio excel at verbal tennis off-court, with jabs traded at a Sorkin-esque pace. They know how to cut each other down in a manner that only comes with years spent together. 

Uncle Boonmee DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom reteams with Guadagnino after Suspira and Call Me by Your Name, and not since Larry Clark’s Bully (or perhaps Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo) has a camera so shamelessly lingered over the sweaty bodies of its young subjects. Guadagnino ups the homoeroticism that’s a staple of any sports movie worth its salt, with O’Connor’s Zweig frequently lording his comfortability in his own skin over the less-sure Art. He stands naked in front of Art in the sauna, eats a banana seductively in-between sets, and eagerly tells Tashi a lurid story involving his role in Art’s sexual awakening––a story which deeply embarrasses Art but endears him to Tashi. 

The film is also full of stylistic flourishes: at one point the camera is the ball spinning back and forth over the net. There is a brief foray into a first-person viewpoint that, unfortunately, plays out like a VR sports game. These can be fun, even energizing, but not every one lands, and the visceral energy of the tennis is more effective when played straight. I can’t help applauding Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom’s fearlessness in going for it, though––something they’re never been afraid of doing. (Just look back at the bonkers ending of their Suspiria remake.)

Like boxing and baseball, tennis is inherently cinematic––identifiable stakes of one person facing off against another. It amplifies the mental component in which one small lapse of focus can spell doom. Kuritzkes’ script is preoccupied with this idea of mental fortitude taking precedence over raw talent in sports. Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady was never the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but he rarely got rattled when it mattered most. Art Donaldson finds himself in a rut, playing in this challenger which is beneath him, because he has lost his focus and needs a confidence boost. Challengers might’ve benefitted from dialing back a few of these visual touches, trusting more of the built-in drama tennis provides. 

At its core––once you sort through the time jumps and endless camera experiments––Challengers’ narrative is deceptively simple, perhaps even mildly reductive: Tashi must choose between the bad boy (Zweig) and the one who will remain loyal (Art): excitement versus stability. We watch her flirt with both options, though we know from the jump that she eventually opts for the latter. It’s the better career and financial move, one solidified almost immediately after her ambitions are cut short by an injury she suffers as a college athlete primed for stardom. With Art she can live vicariously through him as his coach. His success becomes her success. Transferring the typical parent-child vicarious relationship to a husband-wife is a perverse move by Kuritzkes. Despite Tashi’s choice of Art, Zweig’s allure does not dissipate overnight and the two carry a strong, near-primal bond through the years as they occasionally encounter each other on the tennis circuit. Guadagnino excels at framing this doomed relationship in which small glances betray the lies they tell each other––their shared history meaning they know the other clocked the truth.

Jockeying for position in love triangles, love lives spilling onto the court, a keen sense for heightened ridiculousness: Challengers shares plenty DNA with Showgirls. And like the best elements of Verhoeven’s classic, the finale of Challengers excels in its pure synthesis of off-court drama with the intense match itself. It’s cleverly constructed, features the film’s best use of that patented O’Connor smile, and is exhilarating to watch unfold. That its ultimate conclusion feels perfectly attuned to the preceding narrative and its characters’ arcs, while also being impossible to predict, is no small feat.

Challengers opens in theaters on April 26.

Grade: B+

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