Challengers: All is Fair in Love and Tennis

13 May 2024 / by Joey Vong
Challengers: All is Fair in Love and Tennis
A breathtaking masterclass in filmmaking, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is not to be missed.

As one of the most anticipated movies of the year starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist and written by screenwriter and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is a sweaty, erotic, tension-filled tennis drama that is an unexpected and unforgettable feat. 


Centring the lives of three pro-tennis players, Challengers begins in 2019 where we meet Taschi Duncan (Zendaya) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). Tashi, a once emerging tennis prodigy who was forced into retirement, now acts as a coach to her husband, Art, a Grand Slam-winning player whose edge on the tennis court seems to all but all be in decline. Wanting to boost his confidence, Tashi enters Art into a Challengers event, one of the lowest-tiered events in the professional tour. 


It is here where Art comes face-to-face with Patrick (Josh O’Connor), his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend. As Art and Patrick reconnect through the match, the audience is thrown back and forth from the past to the future throughout the course of 13 years. With the Challengers match between Art and Patrick serving as the anchor of the film, we learn about the trio’s past and what exactly is at stake for the future. 


When the trailer was first released for Challengers it was hard to tell what exactly the movie entailed or could potentially be about. With a fairly vague and basic premise, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but much like other folks, knowing that it was directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) had me tuned in and excited for the release. Now having seen the film twice in theatres and still wanting to return, I can safely say that Challengers is a near masterpiece and so well worth the wait. There is so much to love about Challengers, but I’ll start with some of the more technical elements of the movie. 


The writing in this film is near perfection. As a 100% original screenplay, Kuritzkes does an impeccable job of laying the groundwork for which the movie’s features can be built on and flushed out. The scenes are mapped out precisely and functionally and the progression of the story is controlled and intentional. For a movie that jumps back and forth so much in time, it would be easy to compromise the structure of the film and have the story be muddled, lost or convoluted. However, Kuritzkes masterfully moves through these obstacles and exemplifies how powerful good writing can be. 


The characterization in particular is a highlight as the three main characters are so uniquely crafted and distinct from one another, each offering something to the narrative that cannot be derived from a single character on their own. Their personalities collide and contrast each other in such vivid ways that allow the audience to explore the various dimensions of their unique relationships. 


Another standout component of the film is its riveting soundtrack and original score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Heavy with synths and inspired by house music, Reznor and Ross deliver an embodied score that instantly transports viewers into the world of Challengers. Balancing intensity, fun and play, it elevates the narrative, pushes its pedal on the gas and never lets go. The music itself feels like a pivotal character as it does a lot of heavy lifting to illustrate the film’s tone. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat since I watched the film and it continues to ring in my ears. 


To add, the cinematography is also immaculate. It’s almost impossible not to notice how stylish and well-shot the film is. Incredibly creative and innovative shots are used throughout; it’s clear that the filmmakers prioritized the look of the movie. With gorgeous colouring, a generous mix of close-ups, slo-mo shots and POVs, the sheer variety offered is a treat. The camera work, cinematography and colour palette is a dream as they capture your eye and build on the intimacy shared between the characters and the sport of tennis as a whole.


The performances in the film are not to be overlooked as all three leads wholly embody their characters and deliver captivating portrayals throughout numerous periods of time. To play characters at numerous stages of their lives and exhibit appropriate and believable mannerisms and attitudes is not an easy task, but this trio makes the process look effortless. They exude a tremendous amount of chemistry together, adding a certain sexuality, vulnerability and detail to the characters that bring out their humanity and truly make it easy to connect to them. Not only are they able to sell their respective roles as pro tennis players, but their performances add unspoken depth and a multitude of layers to Art, Tashi and Patrick that go beyond the dialogue. Zendaya’s performance was particularly striking as she has never been in an arthouse film such as Challengers before. Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor fully transform into Art and Patrick and give their all to these very real and flawed characters. 


What makes the film truly so memorable is how these elements all come together under Guadagnino’s impeccable direction. It’s nearly impossible to pick out stellar components of the film individually because they all work in harmony to create such an exhilarating and genuinely fun experience for the moviegoer. While the elements of the film can and should be praised separately, it is truly exceptional that the filmmakers and everyone involved in the project were able to create a final project that is so well-realized and executed to what seems to be the highest degree possible. It is evident that Guadagnino had such a clear vision for what this project could look like and elevated this story into a film that feels fresh and resonant. 


Playing with some really interesting themes in a highly unique setting, Challengers explores ideas of passion, identity, ambition, power dynamics, relationships, opportunity and manipulation. The characters are complicated and nuanced in themselves, but it is safe to say that their particular dynamic is so unique and unlike anything I’ve seen depicted on film. While there has been a lot of talk about Challengers as a sports movie revolving around a love triangle, it is so much more than that. The film is so incredibly vibrant, electric and alive that it can only be described through its originality and brilliant execution and delivery. With excellent direction and dedication to the craft from everyone involved, I already can’t wait to watch it again. 


As the sum of all its parts, Challengers is gripping and all-consuming. It is seductive, teasing and a definite conversation starter that allows the moviegoer a luxury not often afforded anymore: the chance to debate, bicker and argue about what the story means, the intentionality of the characters and what comes next. The film trusts its audience enough to allow for an endless stream of interpretation and provides no clear answers to what you as the viewer should walk away with. With great use of various motifs and imagery and some of the best callbacks I’ve seen in recent years, Challengers also has immense rewatch value that will only deepen the viewer’s understanding and appreciation for the film. 


Challengers is a masterclass film that offers an exhilarating movie-watching experience in all departments. With every element of the movie working together to create an unforgettable experience, seeing this film on the big screen was the most fun I’ve had all year and will probably remain my favourite movie of 2024. It is in many ways, at least to me, a perfect movie. Having seen it twice now, it continues to take my breath away as I continue to contemplate its many layers. There is absolutely nothing that I would change. 


Make sure to catch Challengers now screening at Cineplex. It truly is unmissable.