2 min read

Challengers

A movie about a lot more than hitting a ball with a racket.
Challengers

At its surface, "Challengers" is about a rivalry between two friends and tennis players, Patrick Zweig (Joshua O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), and the tennis prodigy, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who comes between them. At some level, the film is about the opposition between Zweig and Donaldson; the former fast, loose, dirty; the latter tight, constrained, manicured to perfection. To think of this movie in terms of poles with Duncan somewhere in the middle, is a mistake. But to describe it as a triangle (love or otherwise) is also inadequate. That misses the layered network of connections screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes builds between these characters, relationships that evolve and degrade through time. If anything, the closest we can get to a suitable metaphor is to think of them as three distinct points, connected by arcs that ebb and flow, bend and stiffen. These lines scarcely ever making the shortest connection across; they lace over one another, loop around, avoid the things they don't want to see, coalescing until they connect, forming, if you'll indulge me, a ball, a single sphere of regret, bitterness, betrayal, and in the center, a kernel of something real. 

Kuritzkes' script bounces across time and space, though ultimately anchored by the final match between Zweig and Donaldson. This achronological structure constantly ramps up the tension between the two players in their duel – each serve becomes more important than the last, as we learn about what exactly is at stake between these two men. 

On top of that is the adrenaline-pumping soundtrack from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, with tracks that will undoubtedly find themselves in nightclubs within the month. Usually, I'm turned away by obtrusive soundtracks that feel emotionally instructive. But Reznor and Ross' work here goes beyond simple prescriptions; they elevate, and sometimes contradict, the ongoing action. A sour fight will have light synths underneath; an intimate conversation will contend with a pulsing bass. The film's editing takes on a similar approach; quiet conversations employ cuts as if they're fight scenes, as characters trade playful barbs and harsh truths.

In a different film, these contradictions could alienate the viewer, keep them out of the experience rather than suck them in. But with these three terrific performers, it's difficult to be anything but mesmerized. Faist comes in hot, after his terrific turn as Riff in the much overlooked "West Side Story" from 2019. It's hard to make restraint compelling, but Faist pulls it off. Zendaya, also a producer on the film, dives headfirst into the ambiguity of Tasha Duncan, a story which partly mirrors her own teenage stardom. O'Connor was the least known of the trio to me; the smarmy charm and volatile energy of his Zweig has me eager to see more. What makes their three performances exciting together is how much they change. Traits that start as little teenage quirks harden, calcifying into their adult identities. All three deliver rigorous, deep, interwoven performances that I felt sad to leave behind when the credits rolled. 

"Challengers" is about tennis. It's about the games we play with each other, to get what we want. It's about the lies we tell ourselves to fuel us. It's about the competitions both within and without, because though these characters may appear to be playing against each other, they might as well be lobbing the ball back to themselves. It's layered, dense, fun, electric, and one of the best films I've seen all year.