Challengers film poster and movie review

Movie Reviews

Challengers

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on April 28, 2024

Theatrical Release:
April 26, 2024

Tennis has never before been as cinematic as it is in the capable hands of director Luca Guadagnino.

Running Time131 min

RatingR

Running Time 131 min

RatingR

Luca Guadagnino

Justin Kuritzkes

Zendaya (Tashi Duncan), Josh O'Connor (Patrick Zweig), Mike Faist (Art Donaldson), Darnell Appling (New Rochelle Final Umpire), AJ Lister (Lily Donaldson), Nada Despotovich (Tashi's mother), Naheem Garcia (Tashi's father), Hailey Gates (Helen), Jake Jensen (Finn Larsen)


Challengers (2024)

by Luke Bonanno

Question Luca Guadagnino at your own risk. More often than not, the Italian director has been able to deliver compelling cinema, no matter how iffy the concept sounds on paper. A gay romance straddling the age of consent in 1980s Italy? The Internet-beloved and Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name. A remake of the giallo classic Suspiria? Arguably the most epic horror film of modern times. Cannibal road trip love story? The acclaimed and soulful Bones and All.

Guadagnino does it again with Challengers, a love triangle tennis drama that is far better than that succinct pitch sounds. The debut screenplay of playwright, novelist and Celine Song husband Justin Kuritzkes, this drama might be moderately compelling if presented in linear fashion. But instead, the film jumps around the long and complicated history of three contemporary athletes: high school besties Art Donaldson (Mike Faist of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), the superstar who comes between them.

Literally and figuratively, tashi duncan (zendaya) comes between friends art (mike faist) and patrick (josh o'connor) in "challengers. "

There are many layers to this tale and both Kuritzkes’ nuanced script and Guadagnino’s assured direction figure out how to present them for maximum effect. We do not start with Art and Patrick as inseparable student-athletes whose jaws are equally agape at the already famous and soon to be rich Tashi. Instead, we open in New Rochelle, New York in 2019 where the two make for an unlikely and unexpectedly tight match in a fringe Challenger event. Art, who is now half of a celebrity power couple with Tashi, has been going through a slump and decides at his wife/manager’s advice to enter the tournament as a wild card to regain his form and confidence beating less successful competition. But Patrick, who can’t afford to sleep anywhere but his car, puts up a good fight as the friends-turned-rivals’ complicated history takes shape for us.

As teenagers, Art and Patrick simultaneously made a move on Tashi, who seems to relish the competition she inspires in the best buds. As they each get an opportunity with her, initially on the same hotel room bed, their lives take wildly divergent paths to their shared and increasingly tense match.

Tennis has never before been as cinematic as it is in the capable hands of Guadagnino, at least not since Robert Walker opted not to keep his eye on the ball in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train more than seventy years ago. Guadagnino may be middle-aged and established, but his instincts remain those of a young, hungry filmmaker eager to get the public’s attention. Yet again, he does that, wrapping us up in this complex entanglement of three lives where the history hangs over the grunts, sprints, and backhands of a clay court in Westchester County.

The director’s knack for getting knockout performances is on prime display here. Zendaya, whose acting was one of the few weak spots of the year’s biggest blockbuster to date (Dune: Chapter Two), has never been better. She’s almost believable as an adult who could inspire the pain and passion experienced by the two active players. Tashi’s own shining career is derailed by an injury she sustains at Stanford. Feist and O’Connor are better yet, fueling us with empathy and suspicions as the two engage in one-upmanship both on and off the court. Largely on the basis of his dire straits, O’Connor emerges as the player we’re rooting for. Until we’re not. The presentation is never black and white and that alone makes it a lot more interesting than most sports movies designed merely to inspire.

Luca guadagnino's "challengers" charts the evolution of art donaldson (mike faist) and patrick zweig (josh o'connor) from best bros to romantic rivals.

Challengers is not perfect. Guadagnino fumbles, for example, what should be a climactic “a-ha!” moment by taking about a minute longer to get to it than we do. But, by and large, the movie is absorbing and unpredictable, keeping us engaged throughout its substantial 131-minute runtime.

If this opened six or seven months later or earlier (as it was scheduled, before the SAG strike pushed it back), we might be discussing its award season prospects. By opening in the historically unexciting month of April, Amazon MGM seems to be prioritizing ticket sales over prestige. While few spring openers can linger in the industry’s minds long enough to make their awards ballots nine months later (see Air, a shoo-in for original screenplay recognition last year had it been timed differently), Challengers could do that if the strikes-diluted output remains as thin as it has been thus far. To date, this is only the fourth film of 2024 to inspire any kind of real critical discourse and vocal appreciation in America, joining Dune 2, Monkey Man, and Civil War. Those three are most likely too mainstream, too violent, and too apolitical, respectively, to garner any podium parades, which benefits Challengers. But this is not the time for such thoughts. Guadagnino and Kuritzkes themselves have another collaboration on the way for later this year called Queer starring Daniel Craig.

For now, with the early numbers in, it seems like Challengers may be more of a hit with critics and cineastes than general moviegoers.

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