Challengers Review – IGN

Challengers Movie Review: A Summer Sensation on the Big Screen

If there’s one thing Luca Guadagnino excels at, it’s making movies that feel like summer. From A Bigger Splash to Call Me By Your Name, the Italian director knows how to translate hot days and warm nights into not just immediate sensations, but emotional recollections tethered to time and place. His latest, the sensual, tennis-themed Challengers, is no exception.

The love-triangle drama takes a moment to fully click, but once it does, it’s energetic and exciting. Led by a trio of remarkable performances, it plays like a daydream of movement, ambition, and grudges rooted so deeply beneath the characters’ skin that weeding them out might cause nerve damage. Written with remarkable verve by Justin Kuritzkes, the film opens in 2019 and follows the travails of struggling tennis star Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), whose wife, the former phenom Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), is now his ruthless coach and business manager. After a string of losses, Art needs to regain his confidence, so Tashi enters him into a local competition in the hopes of an easy win.

An Intriguing Narrative Structure

In a twist of fate, it just so happens that one of his opponents is Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a brash but charming player living out of his car – and someone both Art and Tashi have a winding history with. The intersections of their lives across 13 years form Challengers’ foundation, a story it unfurls bit by bit. At first, the way it hops and skips through time is disorienting, but Kuritzkes and Guadagnino lay out just enough breadcrumbs to guide us through this forest of flashbacks.

A more linear screenplay might’ve laid its cards on the table too soon; here, remixing the timeline is key to keeping the viewer on their toes. As the film charges through its 131-minute runtime, what we learn about each character deepens not only the story, but Faist, Zendaya, and O’Connor’s performances, too, from the broad baselines of their behavior and body language, to minor gestures in their personal interactions.

Visuals and Aesthetic

The back-and-forth is, of course, a natural fit for a movie about tennis, and Guadagnino and his regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom find clever ways to translate this into the visuals of Challengers. A key flashback to a sexual encounter between Tashi, Art, and Patrick frames its titillating negotiations like on-court action, as the characters glance from side to side, and the camera follows suit. It isn’t the last time Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom deploy this technique, but it is the moment the movie fully transforms into something aesthetically and emotionally unique.

But even before that pivotal scene, Guadagnino is adept at capturing the intimacy between childhood best friends Art and Patrick, with Faist and O’Connor putting the characters’ vulnerability and mutual comfort on display. They casually pull chairs closer together to share whispered secrets, and mischievously snack on one another’s food. At the same time, the camera doesn’t quite see Tashi the way the boys do. When they first lay eyes on the rising star at a junior tournament, and then try to seduce her at a romp of a party that’s quintessentially Guadagnino, Zendaya is largely filmed at a distance. It’s a frustratingly un-sexy treatment from a film that’s trying to re-create the feeling of teenage arousal, especially when Art and Patrick’s interpersonal chemistry radiates off the screen.

Challengers is the hottest, sweatiest film any American studio is likely to release this year.

However, after the trio finally gets some private time behind closed doors, the pieces fall into place. Faist and O’Connor, whose every interaction feels like a risk or dare, play both boys as superficial creatures unable to hide their professional and sexual ambitions. That also means they hurt easily, and obviously. Meanwhile, Zendaya’s hard-as-nails, manipulative portrayal of Tashi fleetingly grants the audience access to her, yielding a kind of emotional voyeurism that’s attractive all on its own.

But let it not go unsaid: Challengers is physically sexy too. It’s the hottest, sweatiest film any American studio is likely to release this year, with charged, muscular lunges on the court arriving where Guadagnino would otherwise employ dance. Tennis becomes both a metaphor and vessel for interpersonal conflict, with frequent shots of scars and injuries as reminders of the toll it takes. In the eyes of Challengers, the sport is as an obsession that reveals the characters’ respective worldviews and how they relate to one another on their upward and downward trajectories.

Innovative Cinematography and Music

This is where Challengers verges on formally inventive. The camera not only captures each player’s styles and nuances as they compete, but eventually embodies – through striking, dizzying POV shots – all elements of the game at different times. The court. The racquets. Even the ball. All the while, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compose a marvelously breezy score buoyed by European techno influences, resulting in earworms which at first serve to enhance the mid-match intensity, but soon carry over to dramatic scenes as well. The music helps Challengers feel electric and alive, as though the world were at stake, en route to an intrepid climax that translates complete emotional sincerity through the medium of sport. It’s as painful as it is exuberant, resulting in one of the best and most exciting films this year.