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Review: “Challengers”

Zendaya stars in an enthralling, romantic tennis drama directed by Luca Guadagnino.
Image by Ava Weinreis
“Challengers” releases in theaters on April 26.

“Challengers,” the latest film from acclaimed director Luca Guadagnino, the filmmaker behind “Call Me By Your Name,” releases on April 26 and is one of the strongest films of the year so far.

The film tells the story of an elaborate love triangle between tennis players. As the film opens, the on-screen marriage between tennis players Art Donaldson and Tashi Duncan, played by Mike Faist and Zendaya respectively, is highlighted. 

Duncan, a former professional tennis player-turned-coach, coaches her husband, a professional tennis player, amid consecutive losses in major tennis matches. To boost Donaldson’s confidence, they decide he should enter a lower-level competition, so he can win easily. The catch, however, is that Donaldson’s ex-best friend Patrick Zweig, played by Josh O’Connor, will be competing against him after the pair have purposefully not spoken to one another in years.

The film is artsy, dramatic and slightly humorous throughout its 131-minute-long runtime — all major elements of “Challengers” benefit from Guadagnino’s singular direction. The film’s cinematography is especially inventive: tennis matches are shown on screen, at one point showing a match from the perspective of a tennis ball being pummeled back and forth across the court.

The main cast, consisting of Zendaya, Faist and O’Connor, is excellent throughout the movie as they illustrate an extremely unhealthy relationship dynamic between the three characters over the course of several years. 

Zendaya evokes the presence of a legendary retired athlete well as she gives concentrated stares from the front row of the bleachers as her husband competes against his lower-ranked rival. Faist and O’Connor have excellent on-screen chemistry as the film looks back on their bromance and the same chemistry that still lingers when the two are feuding on the tennis court again years later.

The majority of the story is told through flashback sequences showing the audience how Donaldson and Zweig had a bad falling out after being best friends for many years and how Zendaya’s character played a role in that. This method of storytelling was incredibly effective, as the plot elements are slowly revealed as the viewer will start to make sense of this messy and dramatic love triangle.

The only real flaw of “Challengers” is that it is slightly too long. At a certain point the flashback sequences feel like they have been going on for too long, and the audience will wonder what it all is leading up to — when is Guadagnino going to cut to the chase? Had the film been shortened by just 15 minutes, its pacing could have benefited greatly.

One of the most outstanding parts of the film, unsurprisingly, is the techno-influenced score by two-time Academy Award winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. 

Whenever Reznor and Ross tackle a film score, it ends up being one of the very best of the year, and their immaculate track record continues with “Challengers.” With a score that steers in an electronic, dance-heavy direction, it shows the genius duo branching out of their expected sound palette for film scoring. The score is so great that Reznor and Ross are, at the very least, deserving of an Academy Award nomination for their work on this film.

This is yet another incredible film from Luca Guadagnino. “Challengers” has set a high bar for film quality this early into the new year. Unless a slew of mind-blowingly good movies are released this fall, expect “Challengers” to appear on lots of ‘Best of 2024’ lists at the end of the year.

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