Challengers review — Sexy tennis movie holds to love

Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Written by Justin Kuritzkes | ▲▲▲▲△ | In Cinemas 

Hot as the sun at the US Open, Luca Guadagnino’s new drama channels tennis as an allegory for competitive relationships while offering enough on-court action to work, most of the time, as a sports movie. At its burning heart it’s a love triangle, serving up a trio of fantastic performances.

The picture jumps back and forward in time: In August 2019 our protagonists meet at a Challengers event, pretty far down the ladder of importance in terms of the kind of tennis that fans pay attention to, but a multiple Grand Slam winner has signed up because he needs a few wins —  Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), supported by his wife and coach, Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya).

Art’s made it to the final, where he’s facing an old friend and one-time competitor for Tashi’s affections, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, his on-screen sizzle wiping the memory that he was ever Charles in The Crown). We skip between the match and the days leading up to it but we also flash back to years earlier when our three were all teenagers, up and coming players hoping to one day turn pro.

This is probably the richest part of the movie. Art and Patrick are young and horny, simultaneously taking an interest in Tashi as they all win junior championships. A supple queer energy suffuses the relationship between the two guys as Tashi clocks their vibe from the start: Patrick is the early bloomer and a raw talent on the court, rejecting the silver spoon he was born with. Art is the nice guy, playing the long game and maybe willing to work harder for what he wants. They both want her.

A scene in a hotel room where the three of them make out is fantastic, setting the stage for the rest of the movie. Even while it’s hot and horny throughout, with plenty of flesh displayed — especially from the guys — there’s nothing here you’d describe as explicit. That’s even when compared to scenes we saw in Guadagnino’s coming-of-age triumph, Call Me By Your Name.

Guadagnino’s having a lot of fun with the on-court scenes — imagine Saturday Night Fever set on tennis courts. The players are practically dancing with each other as they compete, but instead of the Bee Gees on the soundtrack Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring the bop in between the lines. The Italian filmmaker’s shooting it every way he can think of to make the tennis as kinetic and hyper-stylized as possible, including (but not limited to) a lot of cutting back and forth, straight-on POV, even putting the camera in the CGI ball.

Some of this just draws attention to itself, and that’s true of the soundtrack as well. There are moments where the music emphasizes joy or suspense in the competition and others where it’s a distraction. We get moments when the tennis is engaging and others where the filmmaker looks like he’s trying to hide his actors’ lack of a decent backhand.

But then the main event isn’t on the courts with these three, it’s in hotel rooms, bars, and saunas. A relevant bit of trivia here from behind the scenes — screenwriter Kuritzkes is partner to Celine Song, writer and director of last year’s best movie, Past Lives. Given that, it’s hard not to consider both films’ tessellations. In Challengers it’s in the volleying between love and lust as Tashi steps out with these guys, shattering their friendship in the process.

It would be way too easy to call her the antagonist. Yes, she’s a manipulator, but she’s someone who’s devoted her life to tennis and when facing a possibly career-ending obstacle, pivots and finds a way to survive. Implicit in that is the colour of her skin in such a traditionally exclusionary sport, as well as the fact women still aren’t paid the same as men outside the Grand Slams. As she puts it, she’s “taking care of her little white boys,” and one of the real pleasures of the film is tracking her supplementary motivations even when she might not be 100% sure of them.

What’s the key relationship here? Is it between Art and Tashi, between Tashi and Patrick, or — as we regularly return to the 2019 match already in progress — is it between Art and Patrick? How much is it about love, and how much about winning? The audience gets to make those calls, and the movie’s playful and ambiguous enough to let us.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.