Friday, May 24, 2024


I am giving CHALLENGERS one star for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' occasionally superb electronic soundtrack and a further star for cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cheeky tennis ball POV shot. Otherwise CHALLENGERS is a damp squib of an attempt at a sexy adult relationship drama, replete with hammy dialogue and superficial characaterisation.

All of which is a shame for the multi-talented star Zendaya, who was using the film to rebadge herself from being a Disney child star to a serious actor.  The weird thing is that I am not sure anyone apart from Zendaya thinks she's pigeonholed in that way.  A brave, vulnerable performance in Euphoria put paid to peppy, pretty Zendaya the teen star.  And Sam Levinson's MALCOLM & MARIE gave her a role in an actually fully fleshed out proper adult relationship, playing opposite John David Washington.  Now that was a toxic relationship shown in all its gnarly and credible glory!

So back to CHALLENGERS.  The person responsible for this ludicrously melodramatic film is debut feature screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes.  No-one in a real relationship has ever spoken in the way that his characters speak.  Watching this felt like watching a Bollywood movie or 1980s soap opera. As a result, the relationships aren't credible and the characters struggle to capture one's attention or sympathy.  To be sure, the film tries hard to camouflage its superficiality with tricksy camera shots and a non-linear narrative. But unpick the flash and there's nothing there.

Zendaya "stars" as junior Tennis ace Tashi whose career is cruelly ended with a brutal knee injury.  She vicariously lives her career by coaching her successful husband Art (Mike Faist) but they have little sexual chemistry.  He hits a bump in confidence and she enters him in a challenger tournament to get some court time, at which point they both run into Patrick (Josh O'Connor - MOTHERING SUNDAY- a washed-up former peer and lover of Tashi and potentially Art.

The irony is that this is meant to be Zendaya's first headline film, and she has been the star of the red carpet promoting it.  But when you watch the film you realise that she's just the tennis ball that Art and Patrick are playing with. The film is ACTUALLY one about homosocial and potentially homosexual love. The climax thus has actually nothing to do with Tashi at all, but both players falling into each other over the tennis net. Poor Zendaya. She isn't even centred in her own film.

I am coming to the slow realisation that I do not like director Luca Guadagnino's films. But they appear to be critical darlings, certainly since he came to global recognition with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. I just don't get the hype.

CHALLENGERS is rated R and has a 131 minute running time. It is on global release.

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