CHALLENGERS Review: a sexy, daring, sports drama

by Charles Gerian

“I’m taking such good care of my little white boys.”

Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS was released this past weekend and stands tall among the director’s work as possibly his best yet. While the promotional material might have you believe this is some raunchy sexploitation flick ala last year’s SALTBURN, this coming-of-age sports drama is anything but.

CHALLENGERS stars Zendaya (on a white-hot run after March’s DUNE PART II) as tennis prodigy-turned-coach Tashi who is struggling to maintain her relationship as coach and wife to struggling tennis player Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, WEST SIDE STORY).

Art’s big shot at redemption comes in the form of a Challenger tennis tournament in New Rochelle, New York where Tashi hopes she can boost her husband’s confidence by sweeping through low-level opponents.

To Art (and Tashi’s) surprise, his final opponent is none other than Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, “The Crown”) who is not only Art’s former best friend but Tashi’s ex-lover.

Jealousy, friendship, romance, betrayal, and honor collide in this breakneck exploration of what happens when a bond transcends brotherhood.

What Tony Scott did for volleyball and the Air Force with TOP GUN, Guadagnino does for tennis here in CHALLENGERS.

Adapted from a script by newcomer Justin Kuritzkes, CHALLENGERS mirrors the sport it portrays in nearly every facet of how it is presented. Guadagnino bats the audience back and forth through a nonlinear narrative that comes together beautifully, expertly, in the film’s whiplash-inducing third act.

While many comparisons will probably be made to the director’s acclaimed 2017 film CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, I think it goes deeper than saying that Art and Patrick’s relationship is homosexual.

Through the film we see these two boys become men, very much in love with each other in a way that transcends friendship and, yet, rejects such a dismissive and easy-to-label assertation of saying the two leads are gay for one another.

The love triangle of the film is framed around Tashi, Art, and Patrick and is deeply complex, allowing director Guadagnino to have his cake with the sizzling white-hot sexual tension between all three leads but also dive deeper into what makes their love, their bond, so compelling as he showcased in the aforementioned CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

The score, another expertly composed tension-heightening turn by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is the icing on the cake, especially during the heart-stopping tennis matches that we get.

But the real key here is how Guadagnino keeps the momentum building by presenting the moments of sexual energy, the conversations, as tennis matches in and of themselves.

Early in the film, Tashi tells Art and Patrick after they first meet that tennis is like a relationship, and for the moments that someone is playing another, they are in love.

The tennis match that runs through the film between Art and Patrick features extreme close-ups of the two males, sweating, gasping, and screaming, as they battle each other on the court. In the flashbacks leading up to it, the camera snaps back and forth, volleying across the screen in conversation. The entire film becomes one big tennis match for the audience.

The film’s depth, it’s raw emotional core, comes from just how electrifyingly good the three leads are, for without them it would all completely fall apart.

Zendaya gives probably the most layered performance of her career here, and anyone who has seen “The Crown” on Netflix knows that O’Conner has the chops (his weepy and damaged Prince Charles being one of the show’s stand-out roles). It is Art, played by Mike Faist that really balances the two proven talents out.

CHALLENGERS might be the best film I’ve seen this year, and it cannot be missed.