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‘Challengers’ Review: Tashi Loves Tennis

Challengers Awards Buzz

This entire film and review can be summed up in three words: Tashi Loves Tennis. Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a beautiful, melodramatic sports movie about a toxic love triangle between a fallen tennis phenom, two broken best friends, and the game that refuses to let go. Challengers is more than a sports movie, more than a romance, and nothing less than absolutely thrilling. 

We open in typical Guadagnino fashion, with close-ups of two sweat-saturated men from deliciously oblique angles. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) are playing a heated set of tennis as Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) looks on uncomfortably. Soon, we begin our journey back to when the fated threesome meets and their lives are forever forged. 

The first few flashbacks focus on Art and Tashi and go back just a few weeks. After losing what should have been some easy matches, Tashi schedules a challenger in New Rochelle, NY, to help Art get his confidence back. Lo and behold, he nearly does until he runs into an old familiar face. As the older flashbacks come in, we’re instantly shown the camaraderie between Art and Patrick as they play doubles and use hand signals to pull special plays. They have the kind of non-verbal intimacy that can only be forged after “lights out” when you are supposed to be asleep but have to read one more page of the comic book or listen to one more song as low as possible. It’s the unbreakable friendship that can only be broken up by the one thing they promise will never break them up. 

Faist plays Art with youthful innocence and naivety who believes in puppy love well into adulthood. He believes in the purity of love and romance in a way that he knows Tashi can’t communicate, but he’ll never stop trying. O’Connor plays Patrick with a sly smile and a knowing grin that betrays that he doesn’t know anything. He has a very interesting side journey regarding his sexuality, and I honestly wouldn’t mind a side short film just exploring his years on the pro-circuit, adding dudes to his Tinder profile. 

As they both fall for and pursue Tashi, Tashi revels in the attention and tells them whoever wins in their upcoming match will get her number. She tells Art that he should win, and he asks if she wants him to win. “I just want to see some good tennis.” This is her motivation, and it is such a simple and beautiful reveal. As an audience member, holding on to this statement with everything that happens to dismantle it will be hard. But at the end of the day, with every twist, turn, betrayal, rebuttal, and refusal, just remember: Tashi loves tennis. 

There’s something very calming about the revelation, which speaks to the genius of Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Florence Pugh’s smile doesn’t necessarily indicate an unhappy or unhinged ending, but maybe just reveling in that moment. During the film’s premiere, Zendaya asked the audience not to judge the character too harshly. I found it interesting because at the root of Tashi is pure honesty. She’s always put forth precisely who she is and what she wants. There’s no confusion, and if there is, it’s because instead of being listened to, she’s had the wants of others projected onto her. Which, if we know Tashi, is a level of mess she’s just not willing to abide. 

Some see her as one-dimensional, but I believe that’s short-sighted; she’s driven and unwilling to compromise. She’s found Heaven, and she’ll return at any cost. She’s found a modicum of happiness along the way, but she’s found her peace, joy, and love, and even though she lost the direct access, she knows she can get it back and how. I don’t think it’s villainous. Is it healthy? No, absolutely not. Tashi needs loads of therapy, like yesterday, but who needs therapy when you have tennis? (Tashi, Tashi needs therapy).

Zendaya does an outstanding job of showing Tashi’s evolution and growth while keeping her in character. She understands Tashi down to her broken bones, and Tashi wears a swagger that separates her from other Zendaya characters. She had the opportunity to produce on the project, and I’m interested to know what kind of additions she made. Zendaya is always very hands-on with her projects, and her performance is undeniable. She works especially well with Guadagnino. 

There’s a scene by the beach where she’s perched on a rock like Ariel, and her hair is blowing in the wind. It’s ethereal and reminiscent of The Birth of Venus but “after dark.” A plucky piano is underneath, and we pan away across the sandy beach. And my seatmate leaned over and said, “This is the most Luca Guadagnino-y thing so far, and I love it!” I had to agree. 

This was Guadagnino’s first film not to be in co-production with Italy and only his second film set and made in the US (after Bones and All), but Italy still lies in the ribs in the film and makes the film a cinematic adventure. From the beautiful Italian music cues to the deeply saturated coloring where it always looked like it’d just rained, in the best possible way, Guadagnino’s influence is felt heavily in the film. He teamed up again with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. There’s far too much smoking (I was shocked at the blatant Camel advertising), but after the disaster that was Bradley Cooper crop dusting directly into Carrie Mulligan’s face in Maestro, I was glad they had Zendaya’s Tashi tell Patrick not to blow the smoke directly in her maw. 

Guadagnino also worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross again; however, I have a very slight bone to pick with what I’m sure was one of their contributions. I may be wrong, and forgive me, but there is a sound that ramps up when things get tense. To be fair, it is an awesome sound! It’s a perfect late ‘80s, early ‘90s riff that gets your heart racing, and you know something is about to go down. And the best part is it pays off every time. The problem is that the volume gets pumped up to an aggressive amount! Sometimes higher than the actual dialogue. If they could find a way to split the difference, it would be a perfect addition, but as it is now, it’s kind of unbearable, which is a shame because it’s extremely effective. 

That’s my only flaw, which is pretty cool to say for a two-hour movie. It is also a two-hour movie that leaves the audience rapt until the final movements and pays off splendidly. A lesser film could not accomplish what Challengers does and still be considered successful, and for that alone, it’s worth a watch. I highly recommend it and especially recommend watching it in a theater; you won’t want to miss the crowd reaction! 

Challengers will be released in the US on April 26th

Movie Rating: 9/10

Awards Buzz: Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor could each see a few acting nominations from various critics organizations later this year. Reznor and Ross’ score is highly praised by many, so the film receiving a Best Score nomination at the SCL Awards or Oscars doesn’t seem unlikely.