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‘Challengers’ is a Love Triangle At Its Finest and Messiest

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Ever read one of those Reddit stories where the writer tells us something that happened and then asks if they were the jerk in the situation? Ever sit there and wonder for a long time who was wrong and who was right? Ever come to a conclusion that maybe, just maybe everyone was a jerk and no one was innocent? Sometimes, life is like that but imagine if a movie was like that, amplifying the story to something you didn’t see coming. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers is the epitome of those stories.

Challengers is a film that takes place over the course of thirteen years, focusing on three pivotal characters: Tashi Duncan, Art Donaldson, and Patrick Zweig. In their early days of college, best friends Art and Patrick both share a passion for tennis as well as newfound affections for up and coming tennis prodigy, Tashi. Art and Patrick playfully compete for her affections, but the dynamic between the three of them changes when Tashi “chooses” Patrick. The next thirteen years lead to damaged careers, broken friendships, love lost and love found, endless cycles, and plenty of tennis. The film stars Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor in this sports drama.

(left to right) Mike Faist as Art Donaldson, Zendaya as Tashi Duncan, and Josh O’Connor as Patrick Zweig in ‘CHALLENGERS’. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

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It is far from uncommon to see a film utilize a love triangle to push the story along. In fact, it’s probably one of the most utilized tropes in the romance genre. But what we typically see is Person A and Person B chasing after Person C. And this only results in Person C choosing one of the other two like it’s the season finale for The Bachelor. That’s more of a love “V”, don’t you think? Real and true love triangles are not the most common, even though they should be. Thankfully, that’s what we’re treated to in Challengers, albeit in a subtle way. 

The film shows us the relationships between each of the characters, while also leading us on a trail to wonder if there’s more than meets the eye with this trio. And there certainly is. It isn’t just about Tashi and Art’s marriage, or Tashi and Patrick’s youthful relationship. It’s also about Art and Patrick, and the love they have for each other, both platonic as well as perhaps more than that. Naturally, it’s all up for interpretation but it’s pretty clear the direction the film aims to go.

(left to right) Mike Faist as Art Donaldson and Josh O’Connor as Patrick Zweig in ‘CHALLENGERS’. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

There is so much to love and appreciate about Challengers but one of the best parts is the way the game of tennis is used to tell the story. Tennis represents more than just a competition. It represents the personalities of each character and the relationships they all have with one another. At one point, tennis is described by Tashi as a relationship. She goes on to explain that while playing a match, you and your opponent go to a whole different place and experience love together. 

And yes, we do end up seeing tennis match after tennis match, as we jump back and forth in time from the past and present. But each character’s play style matches who they are when it comes to their drive, passion, ego, and temperament. Additionally, the game also gives us a deeper insight into the dynamics between each character, but particularly that of Patrick and Art that isn’t as clear as their dynamic with Tashi. There is a lot that occurs between all three characters that make you question how they truly feel about one another while also making you realize everyone is a jerk, even if they don’t want to own up to it.

(left to right) Mike Faist as Art Donaldson and Zendaya as Tashi Duncan in ‘CHALLENGERS’. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

Thematic elements aside, cinematography is everything in this film. The audience is given the full experience of a tennis match in some of the most unique ways. In one instance, the camera moves back and forth like a tennis ball. And in another, we’re seeing what’s happening through different perspectives, whether it’s a player’s chest or the ball itself. We are experiencing multiple things at once, from watching a tennis match on the court, to being a part of one, to watching a character interaction that feels like tennis. The camera work, while rough at times, only enhances the themes that remain consistent throughout the film.

But the cinematography isn’t the film’s only visual strength. As mentioned before, the film takes place over the course of thirteen years. We typically don’t realize how much a person changes in a single decade, both mentally and physically. Yet, Challengers presents its characters with small yet noticeable differences in each time period it hones in on. The most notable change is Tashi’s hairstyle which may seem to be a miniscule detail. But it certainly reflects her age as well as her mental growth and the changes she endures over the years. Instead of using terrible aging or de-aging tricks via a computer, it’s the simplicity of altering physical looks from clothing to hair and makeup that makes the film shine in its storytelling ability.

(left to right) Josh O’Connor as Patrick Zweig and Zendaya as Tashi Duncan in ‘CHALLENGERS’. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

Another major standout of the film is the score which was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a duo also known as NIN (Nine Inch Nails). The music uses high intensity techno beats and sounds that can be heard blaring throughout the film. At first, it does feel out of place at times, particularly when the music plays during moments that don’t seem to warrant such sounds. And there are even a few scenes where the music drowns out key dialogue needed to understand what’s going on in the moment.

Could this be a poor sound mixing issue? Or could this be intentional, as if to replicate what it’s like to be speaking or arguing with someone but not being able to really and truly listen to what they’re saying? It’s unclear if this is a drawback or not considering we don’t know the intent. And while it would have been nice to hear the dialogue in those scenes, it doesn’t take away how awesome the score is. It fits the general tone of the film and is incredibly addicting when listening to it. And it makes sense why you realize it’s kind of reminiscent of the score Reznor and Ross produced for David Fincher’s 2010 film, The Social Network.

But what holds everything together are the incredible performances from the cast. There are very few side characters, giving the audience all the time needed to focus on our main characters. With that said, Zendaya is the glue that holds the cast together and was the perfect choice for a character like Tashi Duncan. It doesn’t feel like she’s acting, and instead, it feels like she is Tashi as she successfully sinks to the maturity of a multilayered character. However, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist’s performances shouldn’t be ignored either. O’Connor draws you in with his playboy charm, making you forget at times that he’s not the victim in a story that’s all about horrible people. Faist serves as the ideal “boy next door” type with a performance that convinces the audience that Art Donaldson worships the ground Tashi walks on.

Zendaya as Tashi Duncan in ‘CHALLENGERS’. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

The subtleties of Challengers goes a long way the more you pay attention and the more you put the pieces together. From iconic serves and energetic music to devious performances and incredible camera shots, Challengers captures a major part of what makes film such an incredible art form. To tell a story about a sport that isn’t talked about as much is one thing. But to tell a messy story through a sport like tennis, to explore the erotic nature of the game in a way that isn’t at all what you thought, and to keep the audience on the edge of their seat till the film’s final moments? We can only applaud Luca Guadagnino and Jason Kuritzkes for accomplishing such feats with their direction and writing. If you were on the fence about Challengers, take this as a sign to check it out because it is well worth the watch.

 Samosa Rating:  

Challengers receives 4.5 out of 5 Samosas.

Challengers is now playing in theaters. 
Runtime: 2h 11m

If you want even more film discussions, reviews, or just some good old recommendations, be sure to follow @samosasandpopcorn on TikTok!

Pooja Chand
Pooja Chand
Known on other platforms as Samosas and Popcorn, Pooja is a movie enthusiast topped with sprinkles of her love for TV. She can typically be found watching anything from the latest blockbuster movie to a feel good anime, and is always ready to start the discussion on movies and TV so you don't have to.

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