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Challengers

Luca Guadagnino's CHALLENGERS is a fascinating, adult look at a tennis threesome that's playing for much more than a trophy.

Deftly using time and flashbacks, with life changing meetings, matches or sexual dalliances as landmarks in the timeline, the three main characters are unpredictably human.

Zendaya is excellent as Tashi Donaldson, a young former female pro who's now coaching her husband Art (Mike Faist). There's a lot of tension in their discussions, while their well-heeled life of glamorous hotels and clothes presents an unblemished polish to the outside world. Tashi casually edits their upcoming Aston Martin billboard between confrontations, balancing the business of their image as a couple while battling to motivate Art.

We flashback to when the couple first met and are introduced to the third person who will weave in and out of their lives. Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art have been roommates at boarding school since they were 12. They are as inseparable as brothers, and as tennis players, they're a lethal fire & ice combination that dominates the competition.

We see them both with Tashi as Guadagnino volleys back and forth in time, from prep school, to the trio's days at Stanford. From the boys relentless flirting with Tashi the first night they met, to the modern day, to earlier matches, back to the present.

Large titles pop up on screen during matches, but also when you shift timelines, keeping you in play as the puzzle of their relationships slowly clicks into place. The screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes is complicated, but smartly so. He never lets you settle in. This isn't a romantic couple. But are they in love?

Director Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) pushes American boundaries of nudity and sexuality once again, but gossip would have you think this is a tawdry movie about endless threesomes. While the sexuality of our threesome (never graphically depicted) may seem fluid, there are passions, motivations and deep emotions running a straight line through the decades within.

Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home, Dune) has never been better, deftly depicting a complicated, smart and motivated woman whose priorities may not be traditional, but are wholly felt. There were scenes where the dialogue between her and Faist (excellent in Spielberg's West Side Story) is so painful you want to look away.

O'Connor (Emma) is a wildcard as Patrick. Raw, funny, barely surviving and wrapped up in the two people he's known for years, he's a loose cannon that seems ready to explode or evaporate at any moment. It's a great performance.

Guadagnino shows jaw dropping visual style in depicting the tennis matches. Zendaya, Faist and O'Connor look like they could all win the US Open this weekend. I couldn't tell how much was CGI or how body doubles were used, but the matches are fantastic. Zendaya spent three months working with tennis coach Brad Gilbert. They're all impressive.

By the end of the film, Guadagnino's camera is under the players watching volleys as if the court were a clear surface. Then the camera becomes the ball, impossibly fast and spiraling from racket to racket in real time. The two players fly around the court like Gods as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's music score pumps loudly in the background. It all works, immersing us in a pounding club remix version of tennis that's as far from staid Wimbledon as you can imagine.

With our three main actors spiraling each other and sexual tension around every windswept alley or hotel room, this occasionally feels more like a DePalma thriller than it does a sports film.

It's only right that a film this challenging is called CHALLENGERS.

These three people have a lot in play. How far will they go for the win?

More importantly, what are they really playing for?

CHALLENGERS gets an A-.


"For about fifteen seconds there, we were actually playing tennis. And we understood each other completely. So did everyone watching. It's like we were in love. Or like we didn't exist. We went somewhere really beautiful together."






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