It’s easy to understand why Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig are infatuated with Tashi Duncan. She’s beautiful, alluring, and even better at tennis than they are. An aura of mystery surrounds her, almost as if she floated into their lives from some other dimension. Her simultaneous interest in them only adds to that vibe. These three athletes create a mesmerizing love/sex triangle in Challengers, the new film from Call Me by Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino. Although the story by no means shies away from the hot-and-heavy stuff, it also finds real emotional complexity in it.

You know how audiences at tennis matches spend the entire time looking from right to left as the players hit the ball? Guadagnino mimics that with a narrative that goes back and forth between the present and the past. Art (West Side Story’s Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) are squaring off in a tennis championship; Tashi (Zendaya) watches intently from the stands. As their competition rages on, we learn the details of the trio's shared history, which starts with a three-way make-out session and finds both guys in relationships with Tashi at various points. Just as they battle on the court, they’re locked in a years-long fight for her affection. We sense that whoever wins the game will also win her commitment - but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

On a surface level, Challengers is a tawdry soap opera. The central characters flirt, fight, hook up, break up, elevate each other, and tear each other down. There are affairs and betrayals, reconciliations and manipulations. I have no need to spoil any of the specifics. Suffice it to say, enough drama exists in their lives to fill Wimbledon Stadium several times over. Watching how the provocative, bordering on salacious, events unfold is seriously entertaining. Anyone who gets bored by the movie may be lacking a pulse.

By the time the second hour rolls around, it becomes clear that Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay is filled with subtext. The stuff that’s left unspoken is even more compelling than the stuff that’s overt. Pay attention and you will notice complicated dynamics at work, including why Tashi chooses to share herself with both men, what she wants from each of them, a heavy implication that one of the fellows is bisexual, and an underlying rivalry between Art and Patrick that goes beyond girls and tennis balls. The movie puts the pieces together so precisely that the in-the-present game has tension that far exceeds who will take home a trophy.

Guadagnino emphasizes the underlying motivations in a variety of ways. He utilizes shots from the net’s POV, with balls flying toward the audience. During the finale, there’s a stunning shot as if the camera was the ball itself, getting hammered across the court. Long close-ups allow us to study the faces of the characters and to notice the nuances the actors bring to their roles. A techno soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lends a sonic sense of urgency to what we’re seeing. The time-jumping story amazingly builds suspense almost in reverse. A massive windstorm serves as a metaphor for the tumult these people are experiencing right before the climactic game.

Equally effective are the performances. Zendaya, Faist, and O’Connor all make their characters multi-layered. No matter what combination of the three we’re observing at any given time, there’s a guaranteed spark. The stars perfectly bring out the below-the-surface factors that drive Tashi, Art, and Patrick. Even better, they show how these companions change as a result of their troubles. No one is the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Here’s an example of ensemble casting at its best.

Challengers is a sneaky little movie that lures you in with the promise of sex, then delivers a mature, magnificently acted exploration of how sexuality fundamentally alters the fabric of a long-standing friendship.

out of four

Challengers is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, and graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan