Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino — whose repertoire boasts successes like Call Me by Your Name and Bones and All — subverts the expectations of your typical sports film with its tale of manipulation, deceit, lust and romance. 

The film centers a time-shifting premise following the entanglement between tennis prodigy turned coach Tashi Duncan, played by Zendaya, her husband Art Donaldson, played by Mike Faist and Tashi’s former boyfriend, Patrick Zweig, played by Josh O’Connor

The romantic triangle that ensues as Donaldson trains to play in a challengers match against Zweig, his childhood best friend, drips with sweat and intensity. The plot travels between the past and present as the audience observes the threeway relationship’s progression — both romantically and sexually —  as each lead is allowed their respective chance to shine. 

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Art is melancholy and devoted to earning his wife’s love and approval, which hinges entirely on his deteriorating athletic performance. Patrick is a charming, washed-up hustler whose relationships are volatile, while Tashi is intense, domineering and unpredictable. But the trio exploit one another for their own personal gain, whether romantic or tennis-related. 

During one of the most pivotal flashback sequences, Tashi initiates a makeout session with both Art and Patrick, letting it escalate to the point where both men begin to kiss each other as she lies back on the bed smiling. This scene solidifies the power dynamics at play — Tashi has the clear upper hand as she manipulates the men’s attraction toward her and each other, a recurring theme throughout the rest of the film.

The cinematography utilizes creative camera angles for a stylish and sleek effect. One particular scene toward the end is shot from the tennis ball’s perspective as Art and Patrick furiously battle for the final point. The scene makes for a dizzying yet enthralling experience as the camera flips from an aerial view to smacking against the rackets. 

The competitors’ grunting and labored breathing and the sounds of the ball’s impact against the net during the tennis matches add to the film’s scandalous nature. 

When Tashi blows out her knee playing in a college match, the sound is clear and sickening — members of the audience at my screening gasped and covered their eyes. Combined with the sound of her wails, the scene is an ideal example of audible effects in cinematic storytelling.

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The bass-heavy techno beats — orchestrated by award-winning record producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — enhance the story’s most stressful moments and provide an audible pulse that makes character interactions appear more urgent.

This ambitious endeavor from Guadagnino is fresh and intoxicating, drawing the audience in from the start and not letting go until the very last shot. 

Challengers explores traditional sports genre theme such as rivalry and ambition, yet it’s intrinsically less about tennis and more about what the game represents.

“You don’t know what tennis is,” Tashi says during one of her first encounters with Art and Patrick. “It’s a relationship.”