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‘Challengers’ volleys with a true erotic triangle

Art+Donaldson+%28Mike+Faist%29%2C+Tashi+Duncan+%28Zendaya%29+and+Patrick+Zweig+%28Josh+O%E2%80%99Connor%29+are+all+high-performing+and+entangled+tennis+players+in+Luca+Guadagnino%E2%80%99s+newest+film%2C+%E2%80%9CChallengers.%E2%80%9D
Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios
Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) are all high-performing and entangled tennis players in Luca Guadagnino’s newest film, “Challengers.”

4.0 out of 5.0 stars
When it comes to desire, passion and lustfulness, Luca Guadagnino is an expert at capturing it the excitement, the thrill and even the shame of it all. He has proven himself capable of seducing the audience through his depictions of sensible and, at times, out of the box erotisms. It’s no surprise then when Guadadino and novelistplaywright Justin Kuritzkes take tennis, one of the most erotic sports, and craft a restlessly sexy, infuriating film in “Challengers.” Since its release April 26, “Challengers” has become No.1 in the box office with a domestic gross of $15 million. 

Despite the impression the trailer might have given, it is important to note that the sexiness in this movie is not thanks to any sex scenes or its undeniably attractive stars. In fact, one could dare say that this is one of those movie trailers that turns out to be very misleading — in the most positive of ways. Similarly, it’s important to make the disclaimer that if one wants to watch a movie about tennis, this film is not the right one. 

Guadagnino has said he finds tennis boring to watch, and yet it is his use of a match set in 2019 between the leads that is crucial to bring the romantic triangle of this story to the next level. The film pairs its three acts to the sets in this Challenger — the second-highest tier of men’s tennis tournaments — final match taking us through the current and past dynamics of the main cast: Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former tennis prodigy that never reached her full potential because of an injury; Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a professional champion who is rapidly spiraling downward and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a talented yet undisciplined and prideful rich boy who is struggling to make ends meet.

Driving the story are three superb actors, making for an intimate and focused drama that blurs the lines between sex, love and obsession. Faist quickly charms the audience with his portrayal of the sweet boy next door, which is perfectly balanced by O’Connor’s cocky grin as the troubled playboy. Yet, in the same way Tashi stole the pair’s hearts, Zendaya is mesmerizing and steals the show. It is worth noting that the actress also has some producing credits, teasing that beyond phenomenal acting, she is ready to serve the next generation of film with her magnificent work. 

While there is great appeal to the complex relationships between the characters, the true drama is dependent on the tempo created with the perfectly timed and zestful shots. Guadagnino’s films are remarkable for being able to communicate so much without any dialogue at all. From close-ups to fun tactics like making the shot from the point of view of the ball or the racket to using zoom, pans and more, the cinematography truly pays homage to the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Oscar Award-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“Soul,” “The Social Network”), accentuate this edging tension designed visually with a magnificent score. Juxtaposing the preppiness of a sport like tennis, the techno beats drive the action forward, matching the beat of the audiences’ heart as they grip onto their seats, anticipating the leads’ next moves –– in and out of the court. 

Don’t be fooled by the aforementioned love triangle, because “Challengers” is in no way a love story. Even though the main conflict of this plot is driven by both Art’s and Patrick’s thirst to have Tashi, the true relationship Guadagnino keeps us on our toes with is that of the friends, alluding once more to the underlying homoeroticism of the sport  — given that tennis is usually played against another of the same gender — and the intimacy of two boys who entered manhood together. This is perfectly encapsulated by the final shot, which has been cause for great discourse among fanatics

Ultimately, “Challengers” is a sexy film, not because of the homoeroticism in it, not because of Zendaya as the leading lady, but because it focuses on passion. There’s passion among the characters and the way they feel about each other, but also in the way they feel about the sport. The film isn’t afraid to explore the innate sexuality and alleged queerness in sports and friendship while also seeing sex as a weapon and a tool. Viewers can expect to leave the movie theater energized,  with adrenaline pumping through their veins as they process an ending that urges them to rewatch the film at least once more.

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Mariana Contreras
Mariana Contreras, Assistant Life and Culture Editor
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