The best stories being published on the SNO Sites network

Best of SNO

The best stories being published on the SNO Sites network

Best of SNO

The best stories being published on the SNO Sites network

Best of SNO

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Challenger? I hardly know ‘er!

Luca Guadagino serves up yet another visually stunning period piece set naught but a few years ago.

Director Luca Guadagino is known for his complex and beautiful films—everything from the 2017 romantic summer hit “Call Me By Your Name” to the 2022 horror movie “Bones and All.” His latest movie, “Challengers,” is simultaneously familiar yet a totally unique experience.

Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist, “Challengers” follows a trio of tennis players who get wrapped up in each other’s affairs, both literally and figuratively. The main selling point of this film though, isn’t the tennis, but rather the interpersonal relationships between the three. O’Connor and Faist, as Patrick Zweig and Art Donaldson respectively, have an excellent rapport, and their banter is on par with two rivals who can’t quite make up their minds as to whether they hate or love each other.

Unsurprisingly, Zendaya steals the spotlight once again with a subtly powerful performance that makes the audience fear and root for her character Tashi Duncan. She’s able to control both the viewer and the characters within the movie with an intense demeanor. This evil facade, however, is undercut by a genuine love for the sport, and her emotional and physical pain over irreversibly injuring herself is heartbreaking.

The awkwardness of O’Connor and Faist coupled with Zendaya’s authority makes “Challengers” surprisingly funny, with enough jokes and moments to make the audience chuckle, embarrassed, or laugh out loud. The comedy provides a break from the stressful tennis games and overwhelming drama of the rest of the movie, and it never feels out of place.

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Of course, where “Challengers” really shines is its aesthetic. Shot on physical film, the movie is graced with a delightful grain over each frame, and oversaturated colors pop off of the screen, immersing the audience in all the neon glory of a game of tennis. The soundtrack matches the bright colors with a constant techno beat pulsating almost constantly, filling the film with electric energy; the audience can’t tell if they’re at a country club or a nightclub.

The cinematography is superb; beyond just the color-grading, the camera angles build the tension to new heights and provide unique perspectives on the games and characters. At one point, the camera becomes a tennis ball, bouncing back and forth across the court at high speed.

With all this fun, it’s easy to be distracted from the story, but at the heart of it, “Challengers” follows a very simple plot that isn’t particularly ground-breaking. The events take place in a nonlinear order, and beyond the occasional date onscreen, the only way to tell what year or flashback is taking place is by tracking the haircuts of the characters. This isn’t an issue, though, as the time jumps are fairly obvious and not too complicated. In general, the writing is solid, and beyond one or two lines that obviously age it—“Can we watch Spiderverse?”—it’ll remain watchable in future years, and perhaps more importantly, will retain its sense of humor.

“Challengers” is an engaging and exhilarating movie, bound to leave the audience scuttling off to their nearest tennis court to start playing themselves.

This story was originally published on Slick Magazine on May 13, 2024.