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‘Challengers’ a top flight sports/drama/romance film


Striking performance by Zendaya

By Dwight Brown | NNPA News Wire Film Critic

Sometimes, three’s a crowd. Sometimes, not. Especially when a very desirable female tennis star enjoys making two male tennis players compete for her affection. “Whoever wins, gets my number.”  

They’ve known each other since the early 2000s. As a teenager, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya, Dune), was once the queen of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTS) juniors. She won tournaments, was on the verge of big endorsements and was a media darling. Back then, from a distance, her two biggest admirers were American Tennis Professional (ATP) junior players Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, “West Side Story”) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, “The Crown”). Those two schemed to meet, seduce and endear themselves to Tashi. What they hadn’t fathomed was that she would smack their emotions around like tennis balls. 

The screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes curiously eschews a linear narrative. Instead, it starts with the older trio in 2019 and when roles have switched. Art is a world champ, Tashi is his wife and demanding coach who presses him to beat his opponents: “Decimate that little bitch!” Patrick, who beat Art unmercifully on court in their younger years, is a washed-up player. He’s back competing on the challenger circuit, where tennis players dwell until they make enough points to get into the main regular tournaments and slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S.). It’s a crucial time for Art, who’s won the three grand slams but not the impending U.S. Open. Now, his game is rocky and so is his relationship with Tashi. 

Kuritzkes makes the emotional powerbroker the young woman. She snaps her fingers, and both men come running. These days she bosses and nurtures Art. While Pat is her taboo boy toy. It’s an intriguing dynamic. Add in the Black girl dominating the two white guys, and the modern verve in the characters and relationships is very refreshing. In fact, watching the romance, jealousy, envy, yearning and lust play out over 2h 11m (editor Marco Costa, Bones and All) is a spectator sport. Tracking the jumbled time periods, mood swings, betrayals, twists and turns is enough to make your head swivel. Left to right and right to left.  Like fans watching at a tennis match. 

Director Luca Guadagnino garnered acclaim for his Oscar-nominated gay, May/December romance “Call Me by Your Name.” Subsequent films (“Suspiria,” “Bones and All”) didn’t make a dent. “Challengers” proves that it was the project–not his direction. He makes sense out of the jigsaw puzzle script and viewers will never feel lost dues to his astute guidance. He masterfully leads the young actors through titillating bedroom scenes. The cavorting is frisky and erotic. Never dirty. Some nudity, no graphic sex or truly offensive language. But the film does have an ‘R’ rating, so you might think twice before inviting your great granny to sit next to you at the movie theater. 

“Challengers” is a top of the league sports/drama/romance movie. Fans of the genre will enjoy watching the high-energy tennis and the boy-girl-boy love triangle. Hard to figure out who will win in the end. That’s the mark of a very competitive match.