Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: Justin Kuritzkes
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist
Released: April 18, 2024
Grade: A-


It’s the summer of 2019 and two 31-year-old professional tennis players take to the court in the men’s final of a low-grade Challenger event in New York State (first prize is just $7,200).  On one side of the court is Art Donaldson (Faist), a 6-time grand slam winner desperately trying to find form in lead up to the only major title that has eluded him, the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows.  On the other side is Patrick Zweig (O’Connor), an unorthodox-serving journeyman with an empty bank account and a similarly empty trophy cabinet.

These two guys have a long, complicated history and writer Justin Kuritzkes (husband of Past Lives director Celine Song) explains through a series of flashbacks which mirror the momentum of the current day match.  Art and Patrick became close friends when they attended a tennis boarding school as 12-year-olds and, knowing each other’s games inside out, they teamed up to win a junior doubles title at the U.S. Open a few years later.  The world was at their feet.

Professional athletes are curious creatures.  When golfer Scottie Scheffler spoke to the press after winning The Masters earlier this week, he was asked about his mindset before the final round.  He was forthright in saying that “I wish I didn’t want to win as badly as I did” and that “I love winning, and I hate losing.”  There are many elements which go into a development of a top-level sportsperson, but these comments highlight that one often needs an intensely competitive personality to succeed.  The fear of failure can be a great motivator or a career-ending retardant.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name), Challengers taps into the idea that competitive juices can’t be simply switched off upon leaving the court.  It’s part of our DNA.  Art and Patrick fall in love with the same girl, rising tennis star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), and the pair’s friendship fritters away.  They share a metaphorical “rally”, emphasised through the film’s cinematography and editing, as each tries to execute the perfect forehand winner.  Unsportsmanlike conduct is not confined to the tennis court.

Often the case with sporting flicks, the material is dumbed down to broaden appeal and make the plot more cinematic.  Do I think an out-of-form grand slam champ would play a Challenger event in the lead up to the U.S. Open?  Never.  Do I believe the reactions of the crowd and chair umpire during the big final?  No way.  Do I think the stiff, simplistic “tennis chat” between characters is a realistic depiction of pro athletes?  Nope.  Does the climax make sense?  Um…

Challengers is still a terrific film and it’s great to see Hollywood getting behind a romantic drama with meaty ideas.  The three stars are superb – Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) as the smooth-talking extrovert who likes pushing people’s buttons, Mike Faist (West Side Story) as the submissive boy-next-to-door who is continually unsure of himself, and Zendaya (Dune) as the no-nonsense puppeteer who wants a piece of them both.  The power games between the trio are riveting to watch and their probing conversations offer insight into their characters without giving everything away.  It also triggered memories of the brilliant Alfonso Cuarón 2001 drama Y tu mamá también.

Guadagnino spices things up with a 1980s-like techno film score from Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) and a stylish depiction of the tennis scenes to avoid them looking like a traditional televised match.  With lots of memorable scenes (everything from a sauna confrontation to a Tinder date in a hotel lobby), Challengers is a movie which entertains while offering plenty to chat about afterwards.  Relationships come in many shapes and sizes!