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‘Challengers’ Review: A Smashing Triumph by a Dazzling Cast and Crew

Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick sit side-by-side on a bed.
(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Staff Writer Deborah Solomon reviews the sharp, feverish ‘Challengers’, starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist.

Mike Faist as Art and Zendaya as Tashi sit across one another at a table. Zendaya gestures to Faist with her fork. It is a brightly-lit day.
Mike Faist stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino’s
CHALLENGERS, An Amazon MGM Studios film

“Some things are just meant to happen,” leading actor Mike Faist says of the serendipitous connections which led to the making and casting of ‘Challengers’. ‘Challengers’, aptly dubbed Codependency: The Movie, is the story of a strikingly toxic love triangle between three exceptional tennis players, played by even more exceptional actors. If Faist is correct, then the world has to thank the joint effort of destiny and director Luca Guadagnino for the gem that is ‘Challengers’. It is the fruit of the labours of another terrific collaboration: that between the film’s brilliant cast and crew.

Beginning with the cast, the inevitable question is: Is 2024 the Year of Zendaya? With two Vogue covers and innumerable iconic ‘serves’ on every press tour red carpet for both ‘Dune: Part Two’ and ‘Challengers’, Zendaya, and her stylist Law Roach, are a match made in fashion heaven. In the second installment of ‘Dune’, the superstar marvellously translated the sparkle on the carpet to the big screen. ‘Challengers’ is no different in that regard.

Zendaya as Tashi in CHALLENGERs is half-lit by red light. She is facing a male figure, whose face is obscured.
Zendaya as Tashi in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.
An Electric Cast

Zendaya is both a producer and leading actress in ‘Challengers’. She is spectacular as Tashi Duncan, a tennis prodigy who suffers a devastating knee injury, forcing her to retire prematurely and become a coach. Zendaya’s effortless charm and biting wit gives new meaning to quiet anger. Constantly, the viewer is left to wonder what lies beneath Tashi’s stony facade, and discovers a simmering bitterness and determination to keep tennis and, crucially, greatness, in her life at all costs. When the facade falls, it falls with a vengeance: Zendaya delivers Tashi’s few emotional outbursts with captivating vim.

Mike Faist is best known to theatre fans like myself for his moving performance as Connor Murphy in the original Broadway cast of ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ He recently appeared in the 2021 film adaptation of ‘West Side Story’. Thankfully, for both old fans and new, the long wait to see him starring as a lead in a blockbuster film was well worth it: Faist is dubiously sweet as Art Donaldson

Mike Faist as Art and Josh O'Connor as Patrick sit next to each other. O'Connor gestures widely with his hands. Faist is wearing red, it is a bright day.
Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS, An Amazon MGM Studios film

Art’s manipulative streak is well-concealed by Faist’s boyish grin. Faist, as Art, expertly and poignantly portrays a jocular and endearing teenager as well as, courtesy of multiple time jumps, an older, dispirited tennis player. Faist depicts Art’s duality exquisitely, appearing the perfect foil to Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig.

Josh O'Connor as Patrick is about to kiss Zendaya as Tashi. It is dark.
Josh O’Connor stars as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS, An Amazon MGM Studios film

O’Connor is best known for playing Charles in ‘The Crown’, and in ‘Challengers’, plays a surprisingly self-aware and beguiling irritant. Patrick is an arrogant thorn in everyone’s side, sporting a smarmy smirk on his charismatic, yet immensely punchable, face. However, unlike the other two main characters, Patrick suffers under no delusions of maturity.

In both youth and adulthood, Patrick utilises his unchanged unabashed nature to serve as a reality check for both Art and Tashi. He does so for and with pleasure to remind the latter pair, stuck behind their manipulative facades, who and what they truly desire. O’Connor portrays this smug self-awareness stupendously in every facial expression and physical movement. The trio are masters of subtext, loading every look with longing, loathing, lust, or all three simultaneously. Their chemistry is magnetic, enthralling, and irresistible.

A Brilliant Creative Team

The cast’s fantastic work is also thanks to the impressive writing of Justin Kuritzkes. The non-linear plot allows the film to bounce back and forth through time with consistently elegant and seamless transitions. Upon the trio’s initial meeting, Tashi tells Patrick, “You don’t know what tennis is—it’s a relationship.” As the plot moves forward, the viewer discovers the verity of the statement alongside the trio. The matches in the film embody Tashi’s extended metaphor and are arguably more intimate than the explicitly sexual scenes. 

Moreover, the various arguments and seemingly more pleasant conversations are rife with implications, haphazardly layered emotions, and as the years go by, spite and embitterment. The jaw-dropping ending leaves the audience practically chomping at the bit for more. At my viewing, the audience collectively gasped in shock when the screen went black. However, once the adrenaline rush dissipates, any viewer like me may be left with the thought that it was probably the most satisfying way the film could have ended.

Regarding the music of ‘Challengers’, I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself loving Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score despite not usually enjoying techno. The score is an ode to the techno genre, elevating some of the film’s best scenes to remarkable heights. The duo’s score is filled with speedy and intense percussion, splendidly underscoring the film’s more feverish moments. The music is also occasionally eerie, bringing the viewer’s apprehension to an all-consuming high. The soundtrack is masterfully chosen, with hits from the 2000s and multiple unexpected choices, which manage to work impeccably with the scenes they accompany.

Challengers’ — A Masterpiece

In ‘Challengers’, director Luca Guadagnino has delivered an incredibly thrilling sports movie and potentially even his magnum opus (thus far). The attention to detail on both Guadagnino and Kuritzkes’ part is simply magnificent. It is present in everything: from clothing items, to characters’ tics, from Zendaya’s immaculately cut bob to plastic over a smoke detector. It is these little things that not only drive the plot forward on certain occasions, but also bring in moments of humour and dismay. The precision in the details elevates the viewer’s appreciation of the cast and crew’s commitment to making the film not merely good, but excellent. 

In a dimly lit room Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick sit across from one another. Their fingers gently brush.
Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS, An Amazon MGM Studios film

Furthermore, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is extraordinary. The film features picturesque shots of waves lapping on to shore, wonderfully placed aerial shots, and a particularly ingenious tracking shot that follows a tennis ball during the final match. Mukdeeprom’s talent shines and Guadagnino’s “very specific” approach to directing the film has more than paid off.

‘Challengers’ is a masterclass in the significance of detail and a testament to what can be achieved when every department working on a movie appreciates and perfectly executes the director’s vision. Simply put, the movie is the product of “beautiful collaboration”. It is rare to find a film that is superb across the board, and ‘Challengers’ is that diamond in the rough. In a word, ‘Challengers’ is outstanding.

‘Challengers’ is now playing in UK Cinemas.

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