Film review: Challengers

Main characters in Challengers

By Ben Wheeler

Zendaya is, to quote Jacobim Mugatu, so hot right now.

She’s in the MCU and she’s in the Duniverse. She’s prolific beyond her acting career, and yet very selective about the jobs she takes. She is currently, across the internet, accused of “being in everything” – a sure sign of success – although it strikes me that the people who level such charges are simply not watching enough movies.

Fiji Traveller hot take: in few years she will pivot, turn her hand to directing, and nail it.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that she cross-court smashes and twists the melons clean off her two male co-stars in the wonderful new film from Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By your Name, Suspiria, Bones and All).

Challengers is, on the surface, a sports film in two which big swingers on the tennis scene meet in the finals of the low-ish stakes “Challengers” tournament in New York.

In the audience, however – centre court, centre stage – is one Zendaya.

The partners – played exceptionally well by Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor – have, it turns out, a complicated history both with Ms Z and each other, and so the stakes are pitched up like a well-timed lob no one expected.

Except maybe Zendaya.

She plays her character with breezy coolness that hints something far more complex and knowing, an ambiguous turn she has previously perfected as both MJ and Chani. She oozes star charm and has the acting chops to back it up. Matched together they make for thrilling viewing.

You should come for the performances, for sure, but stay for Guadagnino’s direction, which lingers distantly, teasingly, on almost chaste eroticized shots and scenes of the threesome off-court – the narrative ping-ponging back and forth in time to fill in their muddled story – saving the intimate stuff for the tennis matches themselves. These are often shot in extreme, sweaty, slow-motion close-up and scored with a pounding, pounding techno music that in time begins to exert a Pavlovian effect on the spectator. This is not your standard sporting fare, and they are really something to behold.

Main characters in Challengers

Behind all this is a touching and hilarious script written by Justin Kuritzkes, who, incidentally, the husband of Celine Song whose Past Lives was a breakout hit complete with Oscar buzz last year. Weirdly – or not, depending on your perspective – that film was also about a love triangle, based on what happened when an old friend from Korea came to stay with Song and husband, Kuritzkes, in the US.

The two films could not be more different, though: Song’s restrained direction and intimate character study revealing her theatrical roots, and Guadagnino here content to reveal bodies as characters are constantly robing or disrobing when they’re not waving hot dogs in our face.

The whole crazy mix is a heady brew that will have you amused, excited, and thrilled throughout, on the edge of your seat with every hit, wondering who will win the prize – wondering what the prize even is.

As one character says during a heated verbal exchange, “We’re still talking about tennis, right?”

Watch the film to find out.

Challengers is playing this week in cinemas across Fiji.

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