Challengers (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

By: Meghan Winebrenner

On the heels of a world-wide press tour, Luca Guadagnino, director of the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name (2017), unveils his latest masterpiece, Challengers, a provocative drama centered around the New Rochelle Tennis Challenger Tournament. Challenger tournaments are a second-tier sector of competition, but in this highly anticipated film the game of tennis is depicted not just as a sporting match but as a relationship between the two players on the court. The relationship at the center of Guadagnino’s film is the one shared between two best friends Patrick Zweig and Art Donaldson played by Josh O’Connor (Emma.) and Mike Faist (West Side Story). Their incredible performances are met by the incomparable Zendaya (Dune, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and together the three’s morally ambiguous characters tell a compelling story about growing up, friendship, and love. 

Challengers is presented in a nonlinear fashion opening on a heated tennis match between Donaldson (Faist) and Zwieg (O’Connor), before bouncing around in time to share the origins of this rivalry. Quickly audiences learn Tashi (Zendaya), who watches fiercely from the sidelines of the opening scene, serves as both Art Donaldson’s wife and tennis coach. Her intense aura makes it clear that if it wasn’t for a career ending knee injury, she would be the star athlete of the family. Considering Art's current losing streak Tashi enters him in a lower tier tournament to try and get his confidence back before the US Open. Meanwhile, Patrick Zwieg, desperate for prize money, unknowingly enters the same contest, and upon realizing the two could become potential opponents, the film rallies a detailed point of the pair’s past together, and how Tashi Duncan, the most beautiful woman in the world, changed the trajectory of both of the young men’s lives through betrayal, heartbreak, competition, and love.

Challengers plotline is intriguing on its own, but when paired with JW Anderson’s meticulous fashioning, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ immersive score, Guadagnino’s auteurist eye, and plenty of captivating performances, the Sicilian’s latest masterpiece warrants contention for the 2025 awards circuit. The costume design is incredibly precise allowing for audiences to better understand the lives of the characters through their clothes. The film features a famous JFK Jr. tee featuring the overconfident and irritating phrase “I TOLD YA” a choice that signifies the effortlessness and arrogance of the lead characters. The script is also cleverly playful, and features plenty of laugh out loud moments. The dialogue and staging is littered with innuendo and the characters' banter is witty and astute. The storyline also explores the transition from childhood sports to the adult world of professional athletics. Adolescents are encouraged to pursue all different types of sports, hobbies, and extracurricular interests. But, as one ages their desires are lobbed into the direction of sexual partners and mainstream success. The ability to play becomes lost, and a sense of nostalgia for the malleability and opportunity of youth can create a painful longing for the past. This struggle is one of the film’s most interesting conflicts, and it is most prominent in the character of Tashi. While the storyline is centered primarily around the love triangle between her, Art, and Patrick, the discussion is more dynamic than debating which boy Tashi chooses. The film courageously provides leeway for audience introspection and encourages relationship based personal reflection. Some people are drawn to comfort, while others seek a challenge, and few take the time to look inward. A work of art brimming with drama, intrigue, and innovation, Luca Guadagnino's Challengers’ serves an ace. 

Target Score 10/10 - Challengers’ love triangle lives up to the hype. The film is nostalgic and captivating, and the manipulation of time is used to its greatest potential creating tension and excitement.  The story is reminiscent of childhood sports and dreams, while also cleverly detailing the complexities of adult dynamics. Guadagnino’s latest film will leave audiences in awe proving his latest directorial stroke a game, set, match.