HomeMoviesReview: 'Challengers' Doesn't Waste a Single Moment

Review: ‘Challengers’ Doesn’t Waste a Single Moment

(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.
Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Luca Guadagnino’s tennis-centered romance Challenger is a film you’re meant to spend every second with your eyes glued to the screen. Challengers is filled with action and drama, which all add something to the overall plot: two besties becoming enemies over a girl and tennis, — with the film’s focus more so on the girl, Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya).

There isn’t a moment wasted in the film. Every second matters from the erotic scenes of the three talking about tennis to the energetic tempo of them playing tennis. Nothing is too slow or fast or doesn’t contribute to the goal of the main characters.

If you’re not familiar with tennis and are concerned about understanding what match our leads Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) are in, Challengers solves this problem by displaying which match they’re in with bright red letters. This helps the film’s pacing, so each match doesn’t feel repetitive, and the matches can be used to explore the growing hatred between Art and Patrick as the Challenger Tournament continues — an ideal way to have each match add pressure.

Tashi, the character who has all the power over Art and Patrick, is the stand-out in the film. Zendaya  conveys what she is thinking, feeling, and wanting to say just through her facial expressions. The audience can feel the pain and anger she goes through. When Tashi faces her career-ending injury, the viewer can see everything racing through the character’s mind without a word ever being said. And if murder weren’t a crime, the facial expression Zendaya uses for Tashi shows her anger ready to be unleashed could kill.

The way Guadagnino and his team made it possible for Zendaya, Faist, and O’Connor to appear older when the film takes place in the present compared to the past, which is 13 years before the Challenger Tournament, is incredible. Every few years that go by, their appearances change. It’s easy for viewers to tell if the scene is during the New Rochelle tournament or before because the hair, makeup and the way each character acts changes from young and naive to full of revenge and desire. The constant jumps from the present to the past and how each character got to where they are is masterfully crafted, where each time the past reveals something new, the present reacts to it.

One aspect of the film’s time jumps that connects them is cinematography. The close-ups of Art and Patrick showcasing how sweaty they are from the game only further solidify their dedication to the sport or, more importantly, their dedication to Tashi. Challengers takes viewers into the point of view of the tennis ball hit between the characters, which further shows how the characters need to be quick on their feet and how intense they must be in order to stay on top. Yet, there’s one beautiful shot that allows for there to be a step back from the high-stakes tournament, when the camera is under the court and the viewer can see a slower version of the match from another angle. This brings the focus of the game away from the love triangle of Art, Patrick, and Tashi to the tennis itself just for a moment.

With these electric scenes comes a soundtrack that only intensifies the stakes. When any of them are on the tennis court, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score makes everything else going on in the film fade and only the moments on the court matter. The soundtrack makes the matches fun but filled with anticipation for how it’ll all play out.

However, Challengers‘ uncertain ending feels abrupt after how slowly the matches unfold, yet it does end at the perfect moment. The film doesn’t spoon-feed viewers. Rather, it delicately paces pivotal moments and always connects them to the overall plot. It is always more than just a tennis match between Art and Patrick, it’s a fight to see who the more dominant male is in relation to Tashi, even as she controls the outcome.

Challengers is now playing in theaters.

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