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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Challengers

A Beautiful Airport Sports Bar Film



There are various scenes in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers with long runtimes. Each of these scenes has an unexpected structure in common: these scenes begin as being about something specific and then unexpectedly become about something else entirely. Challengers as a whole is not solely about one thing, nor is it confined to one genre that outweighs all the others and this is why it works such wonders. It’s a sports tournament, a psychological drama, and an erotic romance all in one. 


The premise is basic enough. Two best friends/tennis partners, Art and Patrick (Mike Faist & Josh O’Connor) meet highly lauded pro tennis prospect Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) at a party. There’s sexual chemistry and a deeper spark between the three of them. Tashi and Patrick start dating and Art is jealous. Patrick and Tashi eventually fight right before her match and she suffers a career-ending injury. Art is there for her and takes Patrick's place.  Years later, Tashi and Art are married and Art is a famous professional Tennis pro and Tashi is his trainer. Art is on a losing streak which makes him work harder, Tashi arranges a challenger event only to discover he’ll be playing against Patrick, who is a lesser-known player living out of his car and scraping by on winnings from lower-level tournaments. Despite their best efforts, they all fall back into each other’s orbit making for especially riveting tennis matches. 


Challengers does not go down in chronological order and had Guadagnino gone down that route, it would’ve been detrimental for the film. So much of the audience's ability to see these characters and what’s at stake for them will stem from not having a full perception of them. By beginning in the closing moments and then going back and forth, we as the viewers (People on the bleachers) are restructuring our alliances and what we thought we knew for certain. 


I’ve read various reviews from this year's Sundance & Berlin festivals.  There is quite a LONG list of films coming out. 2024 has proven to be a great year for cinema with much more in store but a great year for films “Sexually”. Sex hasn’t always had substance in cinema throughout history and filmmakers today are constantly attempting to change this dynamic. Sex is having a moment in films again and it seems as though we’re entering a new era of cinema where sexual substances are portrayed as raw, human, healthy, strange, and wonderful. There was a fake and insincere approach to it for decades. We seem to have just walked through a door when films are finally COMMITTED to getting it right. 


There’s a heart-racing, pulse-throbbing rush when you like someone and feel beyond attracted to them. The thing that Challengers get so right is not just the process of seduction but the “Allure”. You find yourselves slowly but furiously drawn to someone for multiple reasons and enjoy conversing with them. The three laugh at the story of Art’s first time experiencing sexual pleasure. “Yeah, that is a really cute story,” Tashi says sentimentally with a small smile as she sips beer taking in what she’s just heard. Embarrassment is not always the same as humiliation… and this scene is an example. Sometimes, just a TINY sliver of sexual embarrassment can be healthy IF done sensitively and appropriately. The ability to POKE fun rather than MAKE fun. The three of them make out, beginning very slowly and as it grows more passionate and their body language becomes more relaxed, it becomes about the THREE of them. Art and Patrick kiss intensely as Tashi lays back and watches with a satisfied smile. She knows that her “Allure” is so effective that she got these two men to make out with each other without her instructing them to. The scene is strange, awkward, funny, and surprisingly tender. 


Art’s jealousy towards Tashi and Patrick’s initial relationship irks Tashi as she enjoys both of them and sees Art’s longing as a distraction is unnecessarily spoiling everything. Once Tashi starts to recover from her injury and we see her relationship with Art blossom, we can start to understand the sweetness of their dysfunction. Art, Patrick, and Tashi are all deeply flawed and at times irritating individuals but what makes Challengers so juicy and gives audiences a ripe mouth-watering bite is that we can see what makes these characters so appealing and irresistible to each other EVEN in the moments where they behave foolishly. 


O’Connor, Faist & Zendaya are magnetic and magnificent. Zendaya arguably has the most difficult role because she has to shadow the growing distance between these two men and still retain her individuality which she achieves with such effortlessness. She’s a “Quality” actor of ginormous substance but also has a classical and sentimental “Star” power reminiscent of Nicole Kidman in the late 90s/early 2000s. It’s unfair to put so much pressure and unrealistic expectations on actors. Yet, I do think it’s possible to IDOLIZE people “fairly” and still recognize them as complex human beings. Many actors have gotten us through the Covid years and Zendaya is among those people. We were all glued to her shocking and heart-wrenching Emmy-winning role in HBO’s Euphoria (The final season will begin filming this year I KNOW) and Netflix’s controversial but deliciously entertaining Malcolm & Marie. She then captivated audiences as cinemas started to slowly reopen in Dune which became 2021’s most talked about the film and now 2024 will prove to be the biggest year of her career as her work in Challengers and Dune: Part Two already set her up for potential Oscar success in both acting categories and looking forward to seeing her continue to skyrocket like the jet that she is. 


The lens of the cinematography/editing is cinematic gold because its core key element relies on the importance of something audiences don’t always notice firsthand: Angle. The match eventually becomes seen from the perspective of the round and innocent tennis balls who from their angle we see being hit with rigor back and forth and pouncing on the ground. We also see the match from the angle of the ground and feel its discomfort as Art looks down at it, submerged in an ocean of his body sweat and the sound the sweat makes as it rains on the ground’s conscience. 


Challengers is a beautiful airport sports bar of a film. The kind of odorous, sweaty, sticky, bleeding, peanuts on countertops assault of a film. The three at the center were all kids when they met and were just about to dive into the permanent waters of legal adulthood. Challengers ultimately came to be about whether or not these kids could find a way back to one another as one unit… Maybe society cannot, but individuals can. 



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