Challengers Review – Zendaya Sizzles in Guadagnino’s Steamy Sports Drama

Challengers Review FandomWire
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Challengers releases to theaters April 26th, 2024.

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In his first film since 2022’s Bones and Alldirector Luca Guadagnino explores the cost of competition, both in the world of tennis and in matters of the heart. The Italian filmmaker — perhaps best known to American audiences for the critical darling Call Me By Your Name — heats up the screen, utilizing a talented young cast and an unusual story structure to craft an enthralling and unique cinematic experience. 

Challengers Plot

Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist in Challengers
(From left to right) Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor in Challengers

Also Read: “I’m Not Brilliant at That” Zendaya’s Upcoming ‘Challengers’ Was Unimaginably Difficult for Josh O’Connor

Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) are best friends and talented tennis players. After meeting at a tennis camp when they were twelve-years-old, the two became inseparable, on and off the court. Friendship turns to rivalry after meeting Tashi (Zendaya), a young tennis player with equal parts beauty and skill.

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The Critique

Guadagnino tends to bring an intimacy to his films, using the artform as a way of exploring deeper and more personal aspects of life. In that way, Challengers is a massive deviation. While topics of love, lust and betrayal could certainly fit within that vein, the manner in which they are depicted feels shallow and self-indulgent. Everybody involved is giving their all, fully committing to the over-the-top nature of the melodrama that the story demands. On more than one occasion I found myself laughing-out-loud at the audacity of the film’s choices; however, rather than pushing me away or leading me to ridicule, the commitment to these stylistic choices drew me in.

Challengers is comprised of bold swings. The camera is unpredictable, taking on the viewpoint of a tennis ball mid-game, or looking upwards from beneath the concrete surface of a tennis court as players seem to float in mid-air. The musical score — which consists primarily of a fast-paced techno beat reminiscent of the 1990’s — is loud, often louder than the dialogue spoken at the same time. However, the film fails to live up to the level of eroticism promised by the promotional material. While there is a sensual tension and sexual undertones throughout, the execution is far tamer than I’d expected, especially from a filmmaker as provocative as Guadagnino.

Zendaya as Tashi in 'Challengers'
Zendaya as Tashi in ‘Challengers’

The most distracting element of the entire film is the incredibly jumbled nature of its story structure. Viewers are in for a disorienting experience as they’ll repeatedly jump through time. The love-triangle unfolds in a non-linear manner, showing the outcomes, before jumping back to show how we got there. It’s done frequently, bringing audiences backwards, then forwards and back again.

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It can be jarring, and you’ll have to rely on the character’s appearances — primarily Tashi and the length of her hair — to track the moments in time. In the early stages of the film it felt like a gimmick and a detriment; however, as the story progressed and I began to accept the inevitable, I saw the benefits of slowly revealing the secrets and cracks within the foundations of these relationships that had been building for over a decade.

In Conclusion

Challengers is a unique vision from a talented filmmaker. It’s far from his most daring work, but its over-the-top self-indulgence makes for a surprisingly entertaining watch. It reminded me of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn from last year. They’re both beautiful, but feel equally hollow, like a well-decorated shell that I enjoy looking at. I’m not entirely sure what either of them are trying to say — or if they have anything to say at all — but I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and I’m excited to revisit it again soon.

8/10

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Written by Joshua Ryan

Articles Published: 242

Joshua Ryan is the Creative Coordinator and Head Film & TV Critic for FandomWire. He's a member of the Critics Choice Association and spokesperson for the Critics Association of Central Florida. Joshua is also one of the hosts of the podcast, The Movie Divide.