Courtesy of MGM Studios

April 29, 2024

‘Challengers’ Review: A Sports Movie Out of Left Field

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Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers has everything, and nothing, to do with tennis. As Zendaya’s character Tashi puts it, “Aren’t we always talking about tennis?” The film, though set primarily in 2007 and 2019 and sometimes in between, jumped around in time as the movie’s narrative progressed.It was shot on 35mm which gives the story a vintage, almost timeless feel just like Guadagnino’s previous movies. The film is centered around three characters: Tashi (Zendaya), Patrick (Josh O’Conner) and Art (Mike Faist). All three are exceptionally good tennis players poised to go pro as teenagers; Tashi and Art play at Stanford, while Patrick immediately tries to go pro. While the movie jumps around in time, it begins and ends with a titular Tennis match: Art vs. Patrick in the final of a challengera small pro tennis tournament in New Rochelle. The film is also frequently interrupted with scenes from this match, drumming up more and more tension with each thwack of the racket and Tashi’s intense stare from the crowd of spectators. As the movie progresses, the audience learns more about the history between the three all-stars, which includes friendship, romance, competition, passion, resentment and the already infamous almost-threesome. 

Unlike most other tennis movies (and there has been an abundance of them, King Richard and Battle of the Sexes to name a few), Challengers uses the sport less as a focal point in which the plot and the characters move around and more as a narrative device in the character’s relationships. Additionally, it manages to eroticize a historically chaste, buttoned-up, country club sport in which one gets a penalty for the mere use of profanities (which the film makes sure to point out). Although there are sex scenes sprinkled throughout the film, anyone who has seen it will tell you that the real intimacy happens on the court. The central match foreshadows the repeated dynamic of the movie: Art and Patrick going at it (on the court, of course), while Tashi watches down the net, unflinching throughout. Though Tashi is used as a sexual intermediary between the two men, she does so autonomously and with consciousness. The two seem to have sex with her as a way of having it with each other, and they do so on her terms in this fresh take on the classic menage-a-trois trope. Tashi instantly recognizes the homoerotic elements of their friendship and tries to facilitate a connection, which only ever plays out in *that* scene and on the tennis court. Ultimately, she ends up getting caught between the two until the climatic match point of The Challenger tournament. The actors play all three characters perfectly, and they all have dimensionality throughout, while somehow maintaining a balance between their frustratingly unlikeable actions and a sort of charm.  

Although the plot is fairly intriguing throughout, most of the film’s strengths lie in its artistic elements. The soundtrack, composed of mostly ’80s style EDM or classical/choral music, adds adrenaline to every scene. Where most movies aim to have their music enhance scenes and blend into the background, Challengers is not afraid to bring it to the foreground. The music is played over many scenes at an extreme volume, and fascinatingly, it works in perfect conjunction with the scenes, most of them tennis games. An additional highlight for me was the song “I Know,” which uses the pinging of tennis balls instead of traditional percussion and captures the heart of the movie perfectly. Although not music, there is an almost constant hum of television in the background, and it is almost always a sports channel broadcast that throws out the names of the characters, which builds pressure as effectively as any suspenseful music would, yet exists within the world of the characters, meaning that they too can hear themselves being discussed and are thus affected by it. 

In addition to the soundtrack, the shot compositions are perfect. Even the “messiest” scenes have a sort of perfection to them, adding to the intense visual appeal of the whole movie. The film also plays with cinematography, with some shots during tennis matches being filmed from a first person perspective, almost like the actor had a GoPro strapped to their chest. The parallels and emphasis placed on repeating motifs throughout including the two boys’ serves, the two car scenes and even the use of Patrick’s “I Told Ya” shirt, which add visual tension to the relationship between the three, adding where words may fall short. Just like in tennis, most elements of the movie are played in doubles. 

Although the film is sometimes a bit slow and some scenes are a little long, the movie is overall solid with a tight narrative. The ending is phenomenal and unexpected, which seems impossible given  that in sports there always must be a winner. Overall, the film is funny, playful and absurd, making it a great watch and an excellent, albeit unique, addition to Guadagnino’s filmography. 

Sophie Gross is a first-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].