The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Review: Guadagnino’s “Challengers:” Serving up steamy drama

Photo via Rotten Tomatoes.

Zendaya’s newest film “Challengers” has finally been released after a delay from September 15, 2023, to April 26, 2024. The question is whether this film is a trophy-winning champion or a love-love game.  

The plot follows tennis prodigy turned coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), after she suffers a career-ending injury. She helps her husband, tennis pro Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), overcome his losing streak by setting up a challengers match between him and his estranged best friend, who was also Tashi’s former boyfriend, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). Soon, the film pushes the boundaries on how much the audience can support Zendaya’s rights… and wrongs, but who can blame a woman who wants to see some good tennis?

The director of this film, Luca Guadagnino, is an Academy Award-nominated director for his critically acclaimed film, “Call Me by Your Name” and the twisted romantic horror of “Bones and All.” “Challengers” is both his most accessible and best film, as I was not impressed by his previous work — but once the first trailer was released, I was on the net for it. It has become a hot topic and caused a stir with its steamy scenes and love triangle angle. 

After falling from the Statue of Liberty and crossing the deserts of Arrakis, it is amazing to see Zendaya in a role that truly emphasizes her beauty in a calculated way, as Tashi Duncan is headstrong and ruthless in her pursuits. The film is non-linear, bouncing you around different time frames with flashbacks of competing rallies in a game of tennis, to fast-forwarding in the present. The film title has a double meaning, as the match they are playing is called a “challengers” match, but all the characters face challenges in their lives. 

Tashi Duncan is a complicated woman who one can see is controlling the strings of Art, looking down upon him as she is the mastermind behind the match to help her husband’s weak-willed reputation. She is willing to do anything to be on top, and to regain the glory she had back on the court. She is sexy, yet cold and calculated in her pursuit to live vicariously through Art.

Art is loyal, but demure and mild-mannered. While he can have a bit of sass, he knows his place alongside Tashi and wants to look good in her eyes, regardless of what he sacrifices himself. Mike Faist’s performance brings warmth and charm as he is lovestruck and naive, yet has faith in Patrick and Tashi regardless of how they treat him.    

Patrick is sure of himself and can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Tashi. He is the one who sees her as the person she is, not the idol that she makes herself out to be. O’Connor shines here with rock star smarminess as his mischievous smile lights up the screen and his playful banter bounces along with Zendaya’s dry wit. Patrick is a character who you will be reluctantly rooting for as he tries to reach for the top, despite his misguided efforts. 

All three actors had steamy chemistry that heated up the screen as they conveyed complexities in their characters that a lesser writer can make tropey. The dynamic is unconventional but thrilling and juicy as all three people are, at times, cold and disjointed, but complex individuals who, when united, are the strongest. 

Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes is a pro at writing punchy dialogue, showing how the back-and-forth dynamic between the three of them is just like a game of tennis with volleys, serves and rallies. Zendaya, who also executive produced the film, picked the perfect vehicle to star and cultivate in her first lead feature film role. At times, she echoes Halle Berry and Sharon Stone, as the film feels like a modern version of 90’s erotic thrillers combined with a sports drama, due to the captivating tension.

Visually, the film is stunning; it is the closest you can get to a live-action sports anime with shots following the ball, the player and more. It uses an unusual yet exhilarating style that shows Kuritzkes’ passion for these types of movies, as he called the film a “tennis anime.”  Tight shots and close-ups put you into the games. This movie would be studied by film courses for its immersive nature — no other film has thrown so many balls at my face. This movie is best when seen on the biggest screen possible, specifically IMAX. 

The scores also elevated the movie. Created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, they are very electronic and dancy, but at times extremely tense and add to the feelings in the film. 

“Challengers” is the best film of the year so far. In an era of debating the relevance and staying power of movie stars rather than characters, this film proves that the leads shown deserve to be the next generation of stars. The writer-director duo of Kuritzkes and Guadagnino have confirmed to be working on another film together called “Queer.” 

5 tennis balls out of 5. 

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