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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Challengers"

Film still of Josh O'Connor and Zendaya in Challengers (2024).
Challengers, Frenesy Film Co./MGM/Pascal Pictures/Why Are You Acting Prod./Amazon MGM Studios, 2024.
Film still of Josh O'Connor and Zendaya in Challengers (2024).


Challengers is the story of three characters and three relationships, all of them fraught with ego, domination and sexual temptation. It’s the stuff of classic melodrama. Two lifelong friends chase the same ambition and the same woman, one finds success while the other is undone by his own hubris, and the fates ultimately decide that they must face off, years later, in a career-defining tête-à-tête.

But as directed by Luca Guadagnino, the sensualist behind such films as Call Me by Your Name and A Bigger Splash, Challengers is hardly a stuffy character study or chamber piece—it’s exuberant, excessive and unexpectedly funny, a movie made with as much feverish style and irrepressible swagger as the people it’s about.

One of them is rising tennis star Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), who’s already a commanding presence on the court as she heads off to Stanford. At a US Open youth tournament, she encounters fellow tennis phenoms Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), longtime doubles partners known as Fire and Ice. They’re both attracted to Tashi. She’s attracted by their attraction. And she makes them a wager: Whoever wins the following day’s match will get her number.

Flash forward 13 years. Tashi’s career was stopped short by an injury, and now she’s married to and coaching Art, who is a superstar. Neither of them are in contact with Patrick, who’s picking up girls in bars just so he can have a place to crash. The trio find themselves together again at another tournament, which will pit the now-estranged Patrick and Art against one another—one man at the peak of his powers, one looking for a leg-up, both under the watchful eye of the woman who has always beguiled them.

The screenplay, by first-time writer Justin Kuritzkes, shuffles the events of a decade-plus so that we’re being volleyed back and forth through time like a tennis ball over a net. It’s typical of the movie’s restless style. The thudding, thrilling electronic music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scores conversations as if they’re action scenes. Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom also give the movie a visual edge, with extreme close-ups, slo-mo and seemingly impossible camera angles. I was occasionally reminded of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, a film so propulsive and kinetic that it seemed to have a pulse of its own.

Challengers works on the level of pure sensation and giddy, even goofy titillation, though the shifting allegiances that develop between these three characters—steely determination masking bone-deep insecurities—are fascinating in their own right. Mainstream filmmaking has become so timid, so averse to big declarations of emotion, so petrified of any perceived vulgarity, so afraid that, God forbid, an audience might mistake something for camp. It all feels washed out, neutered, bland.

Guadagnino has no such restraint, for better or for worse, and that gleeful audacity works here. Whether he’s putting us in the POV of a bouncing tennis ball or staging a dramatic confrontation in the midst of a giant windstorm, he has pulled off a rarity: a big-budget drama with major young stars that feels fresh, exciting, strange and adult. Challengers is like an Almodóvar film, often overheated and completely unafraid of looking ridiculous, but somehow still sleek and classy and cool.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week's show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss two films that involve the theme of challenges. The first is “Challengers,” director Luca Guadagnino’s look at a three-way relationship among tennis players. The second is a challenge to our very senses, director Bertrand Bonello’s head-scratching study “The Beast.”
  • “Challengers” is a study of desire, whether for athletic success or romantic intimacy—and sometimes both, Dan Webster says in his review.