The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Challengers

By George & Josh Bate

Challengers review

Drawing attention to films purely based on her inclusion, Zendaya has achieved a star status few actors ever do. The actress has had an impressive past few years, spearheading the acclaimed HBO drama Euphoria and starring as MJ in the box office smash Spider-Man MCU trilogy. Her most recent turn saw her outshine nearly all of her peers in the sprawling ensemble of Dune: Part Two. Now, with eyes firmly on every move the actress makes, Zendaya heads into her latest effort – Challengers.

Challengers sees Zendaya team up with Luca Guadagnino, whose previous work includes Call Me By Your Name, the Suspiria remake, and Bones and All. Guadagnino’s films are often categorized as dramatic thrillers featuring high octane and emotional scenes, complex characters, and themes of sensuality. His new film Challengers falls right in line with these characteristic attributes, while simultaneously feeling more approachable and comedic than ever before.

Challengers follows Zendaya’s Tashi, a former tennis player whose career was cut short following a severe knee injury. Tashi is married to Art Donaldson (played by Mike Faist), a tennis champion who Tashi also serves as head coach and career advisor for. With Art on a bit of a losing streak, Tashi encourages him to participate in a tennis competition that unexpectedly sees him face off against Patrick Zwieg (played by Josh O’Connor). Art has a long history with Patrick as they were once best friends and tennis players together. Challengers focuses on this trio of Tashi, Art, and Patrick, following the three as they navigate this face-off match while flashing back to the past to reveal more and more about their complicated relationships with one another.

Challengers review

Challengers is centered on a tennis match taking place in the present day, with flashbacks gradually telling more of the characters’ backstories throughout. How they met, the story of Patrick and Tashi’s relationship, and Patrick and Art’s falling out are all depicted in these flashback sequences. Even the buildup in the days prior to the present day tennis match are presented in a non-linear fashion. This unique structure is one of the most surprising yet enjoyable aspects of the film, as it allows the audience to watch the tennis match in the present day while gradually learning more and more about why it’s so important for the character.

The role of Tashi is ultimately a very different and unique one for Zendaya, as her character is often portrayed as someone who exists in a grey area. Tashi is never labeled as an antagonist, but her actions aren’t always exactly commendable either. In fact, the same could be said for each of the three main characters, all of whom lie or engage in manipulative and destructive behaviors throughout. Zendaya is certainly up for the challenge, however, as she captures the complexity of Tashi well. Zendaya plays Tashi with confidence, authenticity, and distance, the latter of which makes her character feel elusive and undefinable. The reasons underlying the decisions she makes in the film are purposefully not always clear as she remains a seemingly untouchable and unknowable figure throughout.

Challengers review

Although Zendaya is billed as the lead, Challengers is very much a film about two men who have a history with her character, rather than a film about her character specifically. In other terms, Zendaya’s Tashi drives the plot and is at the center of everything, but the film is very much focused on Art and Patrick’s relationships with and perceptions of Tashi. Like Art and Patrick, the audience is kept at arms length from Zendaya’s Tashi character. There are opportunities to get inside Art’s mind and Patrick’s mind in order to understand their motivations, but the same can’t always be said of Tashi. Due to this, the standouts of the film are the actors who bring Art and Patrick to life – Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor respectively. Both actors seamlessly transition between time periods, going back and forth to portray versions of their character across a 10+ year time span with ease. All the while, they’re able to establish and convey the differences in their characters in the past compared to the present, which adds to the strength of the structure as the audience can compare and contrast the changes in the characters’ personalities and temperament.

The film that these characters are surrounded by is a high energy, non-linear psychosexual thrill ride. A pumping synth score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross creates a palpable urgency and intensity to a film so sexually charged and so relentlessly entertaining, Overt homoerotic imagery (look no further than a scene in which the camera focuses in on Art and Patrick very closely eating churros together) not only makes for pointed humor, but also contributes significantly to the film’s dynamic plot and the love triangle at the heart of it.

Particular praise must go to Luca Guadagnino’s direction, particularly in the climax of the film. The tennis scenes are directed in such a striking and unique manner, with POV shots from the players as well as the tennis ball itself, and even the ground that they play on. These scenes become immersive and engrossing, especially as the backstory of these characters is expanded and greater context for the match is provided.

Challengers review

VERDICT/ 9/10

Taking the world by storm one film at a time, Zendaya’s latest effort is just short of being a masterpiece. The latest triumph in the illustrious career of Luca Guadagnino, Challengers is a high-energy, fast-paced, non-linear psychosexual thrill ride that never ceases to entertain. Three incredible lead performances actualize a love triangle story like no other, so effortlessly switching from one time period to the next. A movie set within the world of sports, rather than a sports film per see, Challengers features a stellar script and dynamic direction, resulting in a film more approachable, humorous, and light than anything Guadagnino has done before. Zendaya, Guadagnino, and company serve up a grand slam of a film, one that will undoubtedly feature in many best films of the year lists.

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