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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Challengers (M) - 131 minutes

A hard-hitting, focused, rising tennis prodigy catches the eye of two best mates, also on the circuit, who compete for her affections.


That, in a nutshell, is the plot of the dramatic comedic romance Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Her Name).


Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) have been besties … inseparable since the age of 12.


Successful in junior doubles at the highest level, Patrick is the better player.

With a smirk all but permanently affixed to his face, Patrick is also more of a “player” in the sexual sense of the word.


It is Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya) who turns their collective heads in more ways than one. I speak of how she approaches the game as a combat sport and her undoubted sex appeal.


Suddenly, it is game on, as Patrick and Art first share their mutual infatuation before the situation off court becomes highly competitive.


Again, Patrick wins out initially, but Art is playing the long game.

In time, the latter becomes a world force in tennis, while the former doesn’t make the most of his opportunities and falls on hard times.


An injury ends Tashi’s promising career and she moves into coaching. She becomes Art’s coach and marries him.


But Art has always struggled with the mental side of the game and is going through a lean patch.


That is when Tashi advocates he win back his confidence by competing in a low paid Challenger event.


And who should Art come up against in the final of that tournament? None other than his old ally and now adversary Patrick.

The pair has long since fallen out, while Tashi too wants nothing to do with him … or does she?


Spanning 13 years (until 2019), Challengers was written by Justin Kuritzkes, who created his debut screenplay after establishing himself as a playwright.


His inspiration was watching a controversial match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in 2019.


Challengers, which is about the dynamics of power, moves back and forth in time … in fact far too frequently for my liking.


It deals with attraction and motivation, with Tashi Donaldson the centre of attention.

Just who does she really find appealing? Is it the well-meaning wimp or the bad boy and why?


While I admire Luca Guadagnino’s catalogue of filmmaking that has included A Bigger Splash, Suspiria and Bones and All, the slow moving, elongated scenes without dialogue in Challengers really started to bother me. In fact, they became tortuous.


Even the up-tempo music score, which initially caught my attention … favourably became a millstone before the movie ended.


If the filmmaker’s intent was to annoy his audience, it certainly worked on me.

While I greatly appreciated Zendaya’s intensity in performance as the highly motivated Tashi and O’Connor’s laid-back approach, his hallmark grin was overused.


Nor was I sold by Mike Faist’s casting as the good guy. I struggled to believe that he was a major championship winner.


Challengers needed a less is more approach. As it was, it felt stretched way beyond acceptances.


That last scene, alone, just kept on going. It made me want to scream.


Sure, relationships can be – and often are – complicated. Long before the final credits on this deep dive into this threesome, I wanted out.


Conceptually, Challengers was a good idea. In terms of execution, while not without some merit (as I have already mentioned, Zendaya was terrific), I was calling for a tiebreaker after about 90 minutes.


Rated M, it scores a 6½ out of 10.


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