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‘Challengers’ (review)

In Luca Gaudagnino’s latest opus Challengers, we are introduced to three tennis players with differing degrees of talent, challenges and motivations, and we follow them as both players and people over the course of 13 years.

What follows is an intricate tale of competition, passion and the, at times, fickle nature of human relationships, as the story of their intertwining lives both on and off the court plays out over the course of 133 minutes.

Moving backwards and forwards in time throughout the movie, the essential event is a tennis match between Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Conner) as the former’s wife and coach, Tashi (Zendaya), looks on from the sidelines.

From the hopeful player with untapped potential to the arrogant raw talent and the disciplined star with a vibrant career ahead, all three characters compliment and clash with each other in different ways throughout the film, showcasing an intricately written script realized as an unusually complex drama that works based on its inherent competence and does not need to rely on sensationalist tropes.

All three leads not only play their characters perfectly, but their chemistry and how their interpersonal relationships as well as their individual traits and challenges are depicted weaves a rich tapestry of characters with engaging dynamics, all three of them archetypes of humans in general and athletes in particular.

Mike Faist is the hopeful Art, who is as insecure as he is sincere, both aspects serving as hindrances as well as strengths in equal measure, not the least thanks to the undercurrent of brooding intensity Faist delicately restrains under Art’s overwhelmingly composed exterior.

As a polar opposite, Josh O’Connor plays the cocky Patrick, who starts out strong in his youth thanks to his self-assurance, but despite his confidently direct approach to both life and tennis, he finds himself increasingly down on his luck as he comes to face off against Art in the main match of the movie, which lends his character a vulnerability that enables the audience to invest in him in spite of his flaws.

Lastly, Zendaya’s Tashi is the disciplined star who eats, sleeps and breathes tennis. She is a winner through and through, who holds nothing back to get what she wants, even if it means resorting to manipulation, and the consequences this may imply does not seem to faze her.

This trio of contrasting characters ensures a richness in narrative complexity, something that is further evident in how it never feels like any narrative punches are pulled, meaning the characters and their motivations evolve in a way that maintains a solid balance between grounded, provocative and unpredictable.

Exquisitely filmed, the cinematography not only captures tennis in a way that makes it incredibly engaging regardless of the viewers interest in the sport, it also beautifully captures the aspects of sport and life intertwining in a way that makes the, at times, callous winner mentality fascinating to witness in the context of Challengers’ story.

The performances and cinematography are further supported by Trent Reznor’s score, which emphasizes the unrelenting energy of the professional and personal competition between the trio around which the story revolves.

This in turn adds to the intensity of the match at the core of the story, emphasizing that more than just the outcome of a game of tennis is on the line here.

Guadagnino’s competence as a filmmaker speaks for itself with his previous efforts, and he continues to go from strength to strength with his latest film.

As a result, Challengers is another deeply human drama seen through the filmmakers raw perspective, making it another compelling watch that celebrates storytelling and filmmaking in equal measure.

Verdict: 9 out of 10.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Luca Guadagnino, Rachel O’Connor, Amy Pascal, Zendaya
Written by Justin Kuritzkes
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist

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