Saturday, May 18, 2024

Challengers: Love, Ambition, or the Game – Which One Emerges Victorious?

Synopsis: Tashi, the wife of a champion tennis player in a slump, devises an unorthodox strategy to reignite his career. However, her plan takes a sharp turn when her husband is forced to compete against Patrick, a washed-up former tennis star (and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend) who also happens to be her husband’s former best friend. As this emotional match-up brings their pasts to the surface, tensions soar and Tashi is forced to confront a crucial question: how much is she willing to sacrifice for her husband’s victory?

In my opinion, Zendaya consistently portrays characters for whom I find myself consistently rooting. Even in her role in Euphoria, where she embodies a struggling teenager grappling with drug addiction and questionable choices, I never perceived her anywhere close to an antagonist until I watched Challengers. I wasn’t necessarily against her character, nor was I fully supporting anyone in particular. The film’s leads challenged me to observe these flawed characters navigate their careers as athletes driven by their own personal desires.

Within the first 10 minutes, I noticed that Art Donaldson (portrayed by Mike Faist) hardly spoke; most of the dialogue came from Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan. The two characters are married and successful, but they are not entirely aligned when it comes to their relationship and Art’s tennis career. It’s often said that 70-90% of communication is conveyed through body language, and Art’s demeanor clearly indicates his disinterest in the sport that has brought him such wealth and success; he yearns for something more—a deeper connection with his wife (and coach) Tashi and more time with their young daughter.

(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi, and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tashi, a former tennis prodigy herself, once basked in the limelight of fame and could have pursued a professional career, much like the Williams sisters, whom Zendaya has cited as inspirations. In this role, Zendaya is cunning, and seductive and will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

As a viewer, I sympathized with Art’s plight and even grew slightly resentful toward Zendaya’s character because, while not overtly disrespectful, she seemed distant and a bit too focused on Art’s career. However, as the film goes into past events, it becomes evident that Art is not entirely blameless; he displays shades of betrayal toward his former best friend, Patrick Zweig (played by Josh O’Connor), whom he competes against in the finals of a Challenger event in New York… a tournament Tashi entered Art into to help him regain enough confidence to get him to the U.S. Open and ideally win, solidifying his career as Grand Slam Champion. 

Although Patrick may come across as arrogant, he finds himself in dire straits and needs to win the Challenger event to resolve his financial woes and pave the way for tennis glory, including possibly making it to the U.S. Open scene. The stakes are raised even further when Art and Patrick face off on the court, especially considering Patrick’s prior romantic involvement with Tashi—a connection that still lingers, albeit faintly, after 13 years.

I particularly appreciated the authentic dialogue in the film, reflecting the screenwriters’ and actors’ dedication to understanding the intricacies of tennis and the competitive dynamics. The conversations felt genuine in both the competitive arena and intimate relationship discussions.

Despite the frequent flashbacks—a device that can often feel exhausting—the director utilizes these moments effectively to underscore the flawed nature of the characters. I found myself unable to root for any character unequivocally; instead, I simply immersed myself in the story.

An Easter Egg referencing Zendaya’s connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) Spiderman franchise adds a fun touch. At the same time, her character’s partly African American culture lends depth and authenticity to the story. The director’s use of unique camera angles and point of view (POV) shots, particularly during a steamy threesome scene (The romp may or may not be interrupted before anything sexual occurs… you’ll have to see for yourself) and intense tennis matches, contributes to the film’s overall tone. However, some viewers may find these techniques disorienting at times.

C_00654_R Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Challengers is a compelling exploration of athletics, competition, relationships, and expectations that will resonate with audiences. The film challenges viewers (pun intended) to ponder who emerges victorious in this love triangle and the game itself, leaving the conclusion open-ended. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I felt the ending could have been slightly more polished. Overall, I give Challengers an 8/10 rating. Don’t miss it in theaters starting April 26th.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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