‘Challengers’ tries to make Stanford sexy again

April 30, 2024, 10:39 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Is “Challengers” a romantic drama set in the competitive tennis world or a tennis movie where one of the subplots is a love triangle? The film can’t quite decide and is poorer for its indecision.   

The trailer for director Luca Guadagnino’s latest offering promises sexy intrigue. While the film has several racy moments, it fails to deliver much substance in terms of storytelling. The beginning quickly establishes the relative positions of the three starring players — Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is a former tennis prodigy whose star burned bright before a career-ending injury. She has become a coach to her husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), who has obtained the career that should have been hers. After a succession of losses shakes Art’s confidence before a major competition, Tashi enters him into a challenger, a secondary professional tennis circuit event, where he faces off against Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), his childhood best friend and Tashi’s former paramour. 

The bulk of the action takes place during the match between Art and Patrick, with a series of flashbacks that reveal how these three characters have spun in and out of each other’s orbit. A portion of the past scenes occurs during the players’ years at Stanford. This part of the film is particularly amusing because the characters wear more Stanford-branded gear in a 2-hour-and-11-minute film than the average student sees in a given year.

The film has the elements of good cinema — characters that alternate between friends, lovers and adversaries, interesting shot composition and a cast with great chemistry — but the form is better than the execution. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s (of Nine Inch Nails) electronic drum music score and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s stylized overhead angles make the look and feel of the movie exciting. However, the perspective switches become vertiginous and the constant club-music needle drops sometimes overpower the action instead of letting the actors work.

Tashi’s leadership has made the Donaldson family brand synonymous with tennis excellence. Her chic wardrobe (expertly costumed by designer Jonathan Anderson) and perfectly coiffed center-parted grown-lady bob signifies she’s not a businesswoman, she’s a business woman! From her mixed metal jewelry to her Chanel slides, she dons polished and inoffensive rich lady neutrals. She hasn’t worn color since her Cardinal days when she and Art played tennis on the Farm.

The scenes in the past are some of the most engaging. Patrick and Art first meet Tashi as teens during a junior U.S. Open in 2006. Tashi’s ambition is derived from her working-class roots and desire to vanquish racist opponents. Both Patrick and Art vie for Tashi’s heart — Patrick is the better player, and earns Tashi’s affection as a result, but Art becomes her friend as the two head to Stanford for college.

The boys admire Tashi for her beauty and brash playing style, but Art values her intrinsic qualities. She is headstrong and wants to go to college before turning pro because she does not want her only skill in life to be hitting a ball with a racquet. Importantly, she insists that tennis is a relationship, a declaration that Patrick seems to hear and take seriously, but that Art overlooks. 

But adult Tashi’s motivations remain opaque. Zendaya does the best she can with the material she’s given, but she’s given the least clear story arc. Art is crumbling under the weight of her expectations and his failure to understand Tashi’s need for an adversary is part of why their relationship suffers.

Even Patrick’s motivations are fully informed. Despite being a good tennis player from a wealthy background, Patrick gets in his own way and has failed to live up to his potential. Whereas Faist balances appearing physically formidable and perpetually forlorn, O’Connor uses his closeups to smile with his whole face. It’s easy to understand how he gets by on the kindness of women who are willing to oblige him when he’s in between prize money. 

The sexiest scenes in the film are the voyeuristic and lingering close-ups — purple KT tape that cuts a v-shape across Art’s back, moments where two characters converse while sitting much more closely than would be normal for people who are just friends or don each other’s clothing — all sublimations of sexual desire.

During one of the Stanford scenes, Patrick and Art share a churro in a dining hall where the Main Quad is inexplicably in the background. It is one of the most overtly homoerotic moments, and confirmation that those scenes weren’t actually shot here on campus. 

Zendaya credited the intimacy coordinator for making sure the trio felt comfortable with one another. There are several makeout scenes that are heavily teased in the trailer. After seeing them on the big screen, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were directed to kiss like the characters were severely deficient in some essential nutrient and trying to extract it from the other person. 

The biggest problem in the film is the lack of explicit treatment of race. Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes has stated that he wrote Tashi as a Black character because Black women have dominated U.S. tennis since the reign of Venus and Serena Williams. Despite Kuritzkes’s insistence that Tashi’s race informs how she navigates her relationships, his script fails to show the viewer what the implications of being a Black female coach and the sometimes uncredited figure behind her successful white male husband. 

Tashi maintains a low level of resentment that Art has the career that should have been hers, but it’s unclear why she remains so loyal to him nor why she continues to deal with the inconstant Patrick. Tashi’s world is devoid of interactions with other Black people, and she seemingly doesn’t recognize the Donaldson household has a tiny champion in waiting — her daughter. As many times as she angrily puts on lotion, her elevated level of annoyance at being in a partnership that she is more than capable of leaving remains baffling. 

I try to evaluate a film based on what it’s about and not what it could be about. Considering  Guadagnino’s previous work on “Call Me By Your Name,” perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the film has all the elements of being a bold exploration of how compulsory heterosexuality restrains men, but instead is about how a talented yet long-suffering Black woman toils on behalf of two white men, with no one to tell her, “Girl, get a grip.”    

The narrative issues and creative campus geography aside, the boldest move the film makes is portraying Stanford as a place where super sexy things happen. It’s a tall order to suspend that much disbelief, but maybe getting the “Challengers” experience requires making friends with two best friends.

Blyss Cleveland is an Arts & Life staff writer and Screen columnist for vol. 265. She roots for Mike the entire movie when watching "The Philadelphia Story."

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