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‘Challengers’ is Zendaya’s Artistic Tour de Force

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Last week, I attended a Challengers press screening at the Amazon MGM Studios headquarters in Beverly Hills, California. Luca Guadagnino’s latest film spotlights three characters tangled in messy relationships amid a backdrop of tennis championships. Anchored by stellar performances from Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor, Challengers is a true tour de force for everyone involved.

Haunted by her failed professional tennis career, Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan now coaches her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) in his attempt to win the 2019 U.S. Open. Attempting to recover from a lack of confidence, Art enters a challenger game to qualify for the Open. But when he meets his competitor, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a complicated 13-year history between the three tennis players quickly unravels for our entertainment.

Unexpected surprises in Challengers

Hotly anticipated ever since its first trailer released almost one year ago, Challengers keeps viewers on the edge of their seats by framing the arguments between the main characters as more intense than the tennis matches themselves. The tennis is always incredibly captivating, but it’s the dialogue and subtle touches that make the spoken exchanges really stand out. As a result, there’s a continuous whirlwind of passion and tension throughout the film.

That undercurrent of passion is elevated by an excellent score, one of the best I can recall in recent years, particularly due to its clever use in dialogue-heavy scenes. Loud, high-energy music kicks in at the beginning of arguments, making them the centerpieces of the film and nearly drowning out the actors.

In contrast, the tennis matches are mostly devoid of sound other than the tennis balls hitting the rackets. The sound design in the tennis matches does stand out in its own way, with both types of scenes contributing to a (positively) overwhelming experience. The way music is used in this film is slightly surprising, but it works excellently with the story Guadagnino is telling and the feelings he’s trying to convey. 

Zendaya in 'Challengers' (Amazon MGM Studios)
Zendaya in ‘Challengers’ (Amazon MGM Studios)

Challengers’ cinematography is unique and refreshing. There are some excellent shots in the film but even more unique framing choices. I particularly loved when the camera became the tennis ball at the height of the tensest games. From looking up from the perspective of the ground to see the ball bouncing on top of the camera to being whacked around a court at dizzying speed, the camera work in Challengers felt very fresh. It was a creative swing (pun intended) that was executed perfectly. 

Similarly surprising and perfectly executed is the manner in which the story is told. While the trailer presented it as a linear narrative, the complete film is very much nonlinear. In the past, I’ve felt that nonlinear narratives can distract from a film’s emotional impact. That’s certainly not the case here. Although the film jumps between several different time periods, it’s fairly easy to keep track of the story.

It’s fascinating to see how these characters’ pasts continue to inform their futures. Now that I know the entire story, I’m eager to see Challengers once more because I think the scenes at the beginning of the film will play out differently knowing how it ends.

Zendaya and the rest of the cast

At last, Zendaya takes center stage in Challengers, finally moving beyond playing the girlfriend in popular franchises. Although she’s still playing a girlfriend/wife in Challengers, she’s finally centered in the story. Her leading role is softer than expected, since she often fades into the background when the spotlight moves to Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor. However, you can constantly feel her presence. Tashi Duncan is never far from the viewer’s mind, given her calculating moves and enigmatic desires.

A full-fledged producer on the film, Zendaya excels in every way when it comes to Challengers. She’s playing a very different role than usual, but she’s as perfectly suited to play a domineering sports champion as she is playing gentler, kinder roles. Zendaya’s strong performance truly stands out because you’re never quite sure what Tashi is going to do next, nor do you know what she truly wants from life. Then again, does she?

Tashi may be the main character, but Zendaya makes her hard to root for. The way she treats other people can become pretty disgusting. Her performance presents a complicated portrait of Tashi as a human being, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of her actions. One thing is certain, though: Tashi Duncan is a fascinating character to follow, and her complexity invites repeated viewings of the film to better understand her. 

Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'
Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers’ (Amazon MGM Studios)

Supported by the excellent Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor, the central trio of Challengers is insanely entertaining to watch on screen. Faist in particular brings so much nuance to his role, conveying entire trains of thought with only his eyes.

Art’s evolution is fascinating to watch, since he’s not exactly playing the one-note, lovesick boy that I initially expected. Every character has flaws that make you seriously question why they would do certain things. Art is the purest of the three main characters. You do feel bad for him, given that he’s surrounded by sharks like Tashi and Patrick. It’s very interesting to see how small actions he and Patrick make contribute to their wildly different lives a decade after all three last saw each other. 

Meanwhile, Josh O’Connor gets to play a meaner and less likable character, but he still brings humanity to Patrick. I didn’t care much for the character since he rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, but that approach was clearly intentional. I enjoyed Patrick more in the flashback sequences but didn’t care for his present-day storyline. The character began to feel grating towards the end of the film and had few redeeming qualities the further he got from his youth. That being said, he’s not the only one with irredeemable qualities.

Most importantly, his dynamic with Art is delicious to watch. The two are long-time friends, but there’s a subtle, unexpected wrinkle in their relationship that adds some interesting layers. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say at times it’s hard to tell who exactly is in love with whom. That question is played up more than I expected and in a very enjoyable way. There’s one scene in particular that was so incredibly excellent, it makes me want to see Challengers several more times in theaters. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. 

Challengers reigns supreme 

Complex is a great word to describe Challengers. The film uses tennis as a metaphor for the mind games all three characters play with each other, but none more than Tashi. All of the drama is intensely personal in more ways than one. As I said earlier, it becomes quite overwhelming in the most enjoyable and entertaining way.

Challengers is a work of art and is easily my favorite movie of the year so far. It’ll be tough to dethrone it! The film certainly makes strong creative decisions that not everyone will agree with or enjoy, but I thought they were carried out with a deft hand. I can only think of one moment where I didn’t like a choice Guadagnino made. In short, Challengers is the near-perfect movie going experience you’ve been waiting for.

Challengers releases in theaters April 26, 2024. Do you plan to see this one opening weekend? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord!

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Uday Kataria

Hi! I'm a huge Marvel, DC, and LEGO fan. I run my own YouTube channel (GoldenNinja3000) and write/host podcasts for The Cosmic Circus. I also created and produced the LEGO Ninjago short film "Golden Hour".

Uday Kataria has 77 posts and counting. See all posts by Uday Kataria