22 April 2024

Zendaya shines as one of a toxic tennis trio in 'Challengers'

| Jarryd Rowley
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two man and a woman sitting on a bed

Challengers follows three up-and-coming tennis stars and their relationships over 15 years. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Picture

Going into Challengers, I wasn’t expecting much.

The trailers told a story of two tennis players fighting for the affection of Zendaya and, gotta be honest here, I didn’t see the appeal.

After about 10 minutes, my attitude took a 180. Challengers is less about romance and more about the toxic tale of co-dependent yet self-destructive tennis players.

The film starts with a match between two former junior US Open doubles-winning partners, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist). The pair have obviously fallen out, but there is little information as to why and how, apart from the camera feeding to former junior prodigy Tashi (Zendaya).

This match is the cornerstone of the entire film. The information and tension surrounding its importance are unveiled through flashbacks. The viewers learn that the three were initially friends however, after dubious plans, betrayal and clear manipulation, they had a fallout of epic proportions.

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That usually is more information than I typically like to give for a review, but it doesn’t spoil a lot, although it gives out a bit of information that takes 20 minutes to get to. The reason I felt it necessary is because this film is less about the drama and more about the character study of three despicably toxic people.

Tashi is at centre court here. She is the best tennis player in the world and she knows it. She attracts a lot of people to her and she uses this attraction to manipulate people around her in the name of “playing some goddamn tennis!”

Patrick is the most talented of the two former partners. He’s arrogant and stubborn, yet in some cases frustratingly relatable. He put in little work to improve his talents; if he had, he would have been a champion.

Art is the most pathetic of the three and arguably the most hard-working. He brings in the coaches he needs and has fought and climbed the rankings. His need to be validated at every turn makes him come across as a bit spinless, though.

These characters make for a fantastic yet often uncomfortable barrage of ‘WTF’ moments. The moments in question also separate themselves from typical soapy scenes by their direction alone. The film’s slo-mo and tracking scenes make the back and forth between characters feel like a game of tennis. That’s no accident from director Luca Guadagnino.

Then we get to the actual tennis action.

Apart from a one-off goofy scene (you will know it when you see it), the tennis is superb. It is heart-pounding and hard-hitting, much like the drama off the court. The cinematography is on point as they expertly hide the fact that actors aren’t the ones playing, which you wouldn’t know unless you were looking for it.

I do have some minor complaints.

While I did applaud the use of slo-mo earlier, there are two or three scenes where this drags too long. It leaves you internally screaming, ‘C’mon! Get to the tennis already!’ That’s not ideal. Shortening these scenes would have improved the pacing of pressure moments.

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The soundtrack is also too loud.

Scenes of important dialogue or the diegetic sound of the tennis courts are drowned out by an electronic soundtrack that is a few decibels too loud. These scenes needed to breathe naturally and not be smothered by what would have been a really great soundtrack were it not so invasive.

The final minor criticism is the ending.

I can see people being completely turned off by the film’s final moments, and understandably so. I know what the story was going for, and there was definitely a set-up for this choice, but for me, it didn’t quite land.

Overall, Challengers was a superbly told film about toxic relationships and the beauty of tennis. It is well-acted and well-directed, and aside from a few minor editing choices and a slightly disappointing final few moments, Challengers was my biggest surprise of 2024.

Challengers is now showing in cinemas across the country.

Original Article published by Jarryd Rowley on Riotact.

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