• 11 May - 17 May, 2024
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Luca Guadagnino directs Challengers, a time-shifting drama about a love triangle between tennis pros, as if he’s a top-seeded player so ruthlessly focused on winning Wimbledon that he’d run over his grandmother if she got between him and the stadium. Every shot is a serve, every montage a volley. There’s even part of one match done from the point-of-view of a ball being smacked to-and-fro at high speed. It’s extravagantly goofy. But it’s also hilarious and wonderful, because it’s an objective correlative for how far the film will go to entertain you.

Zendaya stars as Tashi, a former teenage tennis pro in the mold of one of the Williams sisters whose career on the court is ended by an injury and pivots to being a manager. Her only client is her husband Art (Mike Faist, who played Riff in West Side Story). Art is a nice guy who’s been a dominant force in men’s tennis thanks in large part to Tashi’s guidance and loyalty. Art is having an existential crisis when the story begins. Tashi gets the bright idea of having him enter a low-level championship match in hopes that he’ll reconnect with the energy that fueled him when she met him.

But there’s a secret agenda here, one whose motivations and machinations we’re never entirely privy to: one of the players expected to appear at the match is Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a scruffy hustler who used to be best friends with Art until Tashi came between them.

What, exactly, drives Tashi? The movie lets us poke around the edges of her psychology but prevents us from getting enough of a glimpse at her emotional interior to draw solid inferences. What drives Patrick, who realises early into the Art-finds-his-roots tournament that Tashi is there for him as well, and that there’s still a powerful energy between them, way more electric and obvious than what flows between Tashi and Art? We don’t quite know. What drives Art? Goodness, mostly. He’s a smart, decent guy. You instinctively understand that he’s quite aware there’s still some unspoken thing happening between Tashi and Patrick. But he has decided to be grateful to have been the official “winner” of this relationship tournament, and seems to believe that the best strategy is to let things play out while trusting in his wife’s love and loyalty.

Is Challengers too ambitious for its own good? Or too much? Or less than meets the eye. It kinda gets sucked into the vortex of its own narrative and technical ambitions in the final stretch. And there might be a too many clever transitions from one time period to the other, sometimes at moments when what’s onscreen is so engrossing that you’d rather the film continue immersing itself rather than cutting away to chase some other thing.

The pleasures of Challengers are visceral, intuitive, at times animalistic. Despite the intricate structure, there’s nothing about it that announces, “I am an art film, and I will take you into the hidden recesses of the human heart and mind and leave you there to ponder the complexities of what you’ve just seen”. All three lead actors carry themselves like movie stars. It’s a treat to see three young, contemporary actors nailing the flirty gravitas that the stars of films for grownups used to exhibit in earlier eras, but that almost nobody knows how to do at this comparatively sexless moment in 21st century cinema.

Zendaya has that knowing, alpha-queen, insinuating blank-slate quality that emanated from Julia Roberts in many of her 1990s roles. She carries herself like a young woman who has every right to be where she is. That feeling meshes perfectly with Tashi, who remains formidable even after a stroke of bad luck takes professional tennis away from her as a sport and leaves her as a business-and-media puppet master. Faist nails the difficult role of the nice guy who is strong and loyal but might not be tough enough to withstand the wringer that the other two characters seem like they’re about to put him through. O’Connor’s slightly-open-mouthed performance, dark-features, unshaven and sweaty presentation, and wrinkled and stained clothes turn him into the 21st century answer to a 1970s movie star like Elliott Gould or Donald Sutherland: somebody with a smirking countercultural edge. He's got a dangerously unstable yet attractive quality that's perfect for this film.