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Challengers review: one of the most entertaining movies of 2024 so far

Zendaya looks at Josh O'Connor in Challengers.
Challengers
“A trio of pitch-perfect performances and some stylish direction from Luca Guadagnino ensure that Challengers hits with full, melodramatic force.”
Pros
  • Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O'Connor's note-perfect performances
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' energetic, propulsive score
  • Luca Guadagnino's sensual, sharp direction
Cons
  • An overly segmented, convoluted structure
  • An ending that doesn't quite stick its landing

In Challengers, love isn’t just a game. It’s a full-blown battle that yanks everything — good and bad — out of you. It’s a tennis match in which declarations of love, seeds of discontent, and threats of infidelity are thrown by its three leads with the same force as a backhand swing. If that seems like a too-on-the-nose metaphor for a critic to make about a film that focuses on a love triangle among three ambitious tennis players, well, tell that to Challengers. It’s a comparison that one of the film’s characters literally states in its first act when she tells her two competing suitors that a great game of tennis “is a relationship.”

So no, Challengers is not a subtle film, nor is it nearly as psychologically probing as some of director Luca Guadagnino‘s past romances — namely, 2017’s Call Me by Your Name. In terms of its filmmaker’s wider career, it sits somewhere between 2016’s A Bigger Splash and 2022’s Bones and All. It traffics in the same obviously metaphorical lane as the latter but borrows the sun-soaked sexiness and feisty combativeness of the former. At times, the movie’s instances of unabashedly erotic connection and acidic one-liners come so quickly and with such velocity that you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a racket.

Zendaya sits on a bed with Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor in Challengers.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

That effect is due partly to the work done by the film’s three leads, including its biggest star, Zendaya. The Dune: Part Two actor anchors the movie as Tashi Duncan, a tennis prodigy whose passion, skill, and beauty earn her the attention of Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a pair of fellow tennis players and longtime best friends. When the two boys seek her out, she remarks, much to Patrick and Art’s amusement, that she’s not a “homewrecker.” That doesn’t stop her from later showing up in their hotel room — the space perfectly cluttered with strewn clothes, cigarettes, and empty beer bottles by set decorator Jess Royal — and instigating a threeway make-out sesh that inevitably calls to mind a similar moment of sensual tension from Alfonso Cuarón’s 2002 masterpiece Y tu mamá también.

Tashi abruptly cuts the group’s hotel tryst off when she tells Patrick and Art that she’ll give her number to whichever of the two wins their match the next day. Her ultimatum paves the way for a brief chapter of romantic competition in college between the three characters, which ends when a career-ending injury changes the course of all of their lives. Justin Kuritzkes’ script for Challengers bounces back and forth between this youthful section of its characters’ lives and a present-day period wherein Tashi and Art’s marriage is suddenly threatened by a match between him and Patrick, which opens the door for past feelings and secrets to resurface.

Zendaya sits across a table from Mike Faist in Challengers.
Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Despite what its 131-minute runtime and non-linear structure may suggest, Challengers zooms through its story. Marco Costa’s editing manages to keep the pace up during even the film’s most melodramatic, interior moments, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ uncharacteristically energetic, poppy score only further heightens the movie’s propulsive quality. Guadagnino, meanwhile, uses Challengers‘ sports-based premise to shake himself loose of the already little restraint he usually exercises — punctuating the film’s sweaty tennis matches with shots that twist, turn, and ricochet from one end of the court to another. In one nighttime showdown between Zendaya’s Tashi and O’Connor’s Patrick, the director externalizes the whirlwind of unspoken emotions swirling between them by trapping them in a literal windstorm.

The film’s performers match the intensity of Challengers‘ direction. Guadagnino, notably, makes the most out of Zendaya and O’Connor’s natural expressiveness — packing their scenes with closeups that highlight the actors’ shared ability to communicate even the most passionate of emotions with a single glare or smirk. Faist, conversely, uses his whole body to convey both his character’s youthful openness and older resignation, and he says just as much with a hunching of his shoulders and a slow crossing of his arms as he does a glance at his feet. All three performers prove to be perfectly cast, and one can’t help but be entertained by watching how Patrick’s arrogance prompts different responses from Art, forever hampered by his own insecurities, and Tashi, whose indignance is powerful enough to make both men bend to her will.

A man and a woman share a drink in Challengers.
Amazon/MGM

Challengers doesn’t ultimately explore the nuances of Tashi’s respective relationships with Patrick and Art as deeply as one would hope, nor does it demonstrate enough interest in the latter characters’ friendship. It’s too busy charting the many twists and turns of its central love triangle to dive too deep beneath the surface of its plot. That can be frustrating, especially when the occasional, quiet moments between, for instance, Art and Tashi do reveal new, sharp edges of pain, estrangement, and resentment within their marriage. These scenes hint at a fascinating story about how one person’s insistence on projecting their dreams onto their partner can poison a relationship, but it’s not one that Challengers has the narrative freedom to spotlight for too long.

Its pleasures may be mostly superficial, but like several of Guadagnino’s past films, Challengers still wrings as much style and sex out of its story as it can. The result is a sports drama that sets out to make a fairly familiar love story feel as thrilling and deliciously contentious as any great tennis match, and it mostly does just that. At its best, the film is exhilarating, and there are scenes throughout it that will leave you just as breathless as any great action sequence. What does that make Challengers? Imperfect, sure, but a win nonetheless.

Challengers is now playing in theaters.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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