Sun, May 19, 2024

In Challengers, tennis is a relationship

The spring’s hottest new release is the sports drama Challengers, directed by Luca Guadanino and starring Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, and Zendaya in a role that defines the current trajectory of her career. It is a film that drips with sweat, tears, and angst, and finds the poetry in the sport of tennis.

The story whips back and forth between 2006 and 2019. At the beginning of this 13-year span of time, junior tournament players, Art Donaldson (Faist) and Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) are spirited pals with shared eyes for Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), whose backhand and stunning figure drop their jaws far beneath the bleachers. After meeting her at an Adidas party in Long Island, they invite her to their hotel room, hoping to get action off the court. Declaring herself “not a homewrecker,” she vows to give her phone number to whichever one of the two boys wins the next day’s match. Patrick prevails, and the two begin a relationship. Art grows jealous of his friend and attempts to wedge himself between the two. For Tashi, meanwhile, love truly means zero: her life is consumed by being the best at her sport. After a fight with Patrick, Tashi breaks her knee on the court, and Art swoops to her rescue, ending her relationship with Patrick and Art with his best friend.

By 2019, Tashi has become Art’s coach and wife, seasoning him for a career Grand Slam. However, Art has hit a losing streak and lost confidence in his playing. She books him a challenger’s match at Phil’s Tire Town in New Rochelle, New York. Also in competition, Patrick Zweig. Patrick, broke, bearded, and living out of his car, now makes it his mission to wedge between Art and Tashi all these years later. His old friend now hates him, and his zest is deplenished by Tashi’s discipline and influence.

All the while, Art is scared that his exhaust with the sport will end his relationship with Tashi; she has been living vicariously through him and wants a winner. The final challenge between the two will determine whether Tashi’s perpetual domineering will matter anymore in their lives.

The game is the idol to Tashi; Tashi is the idol to Art; Patrick rejects idols.

Every moment is palpable – sometimes naughty, sometimes bracing, and consistently electric. This is the kind of movie that you just don’t want to stop; it sees nary a time-out in its 2-hour runtime, packed with drama and secrets.

The director, Guadanino, is one who best thrives from a spectrum of sensuality (his Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name introduced his vision to a wider audience in 2017), and his choices throughout the film are a rush of passions, not the least of which is the ballet of Tennis. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s club-inspired music score emphasizes the sensations of the film and is sure to be on the playlist at every nightclub and pool party this summer.

Though the love triangle is intense and brilliant, the relationship between Art and Patrick is the true anchor of this story. Their arc begins with such a childlike and comical glee, with a camaraderie that feels not unlike something out of an old Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movie (particularly when they prepare to introduce themselves to Tashi). The hint of buddy comedy quickly turns to classic drama as Tashi becomes part of their lives, but is she to blame for upending their friendship? Does she truly become the homewrecker she vowed not to be?

The most fascinating character is O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig, something of a scorned journeyman who, beneath the surface, had his match all along in Mike Faist’s once idealistic Art.

Make no mistake, it is Zendaya’s movie. She plays perhaps the most complicated and nuanced character in her career in this film, and holds her own keeping “her little white boys in order.” She is an actress that currently owns the screens in every possible way – not only commanding two of the year’s biggest films (see Dune 2, though who hasn’t?), but appearing on your social media feed at least three times with her red carpet and more recent Met Gala appearances. To witness the rise of Zendaya is to watch a new Hollywood icon blooming in real-time. She has a presence that is unmistakably screen siren: outwardly possessing while subtly devious.

For lovers of sport, drama, and the intertwining of the two, Challengers is an ace.

Challengers is a product of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, distributed by Amazon MGM Studios and Warner Bros. Pictures. It is currently in theaters at the Riverwatch Cinemas and Regal Augusta Exchange.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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