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Review: Challengers (2024)

Review: Challengers (2024)

In the wake of the 70s American Film Renaissance, moviegoers could count on high-budget, star-driven dramas for adults as ambitious in theme as in scope. But in a franchise-charged business, the days of Jerry Maguire and Fatal Attraction have given way to a slew of sequels, remakes, and requels as anything resembling those zeitgeist films of the past gets relegated to streaming.

Such makes it all the more impressive that the new Zendaya film, Challengers, has inched toward becoming a pillar of late-spring pop culture, especially with the casting of rising heartthrobs Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown). Marketed as that tennis movie where one of the last maybe movie stars orchestrates a love triangle between two lifelong boarding school bros that may or may not involve a threesome, it’s been generating buzz for nearly a year since Amazon/MGM delayed its release to wait out the Hollywood strikes.

With Italian director Luca Guadagnino at the helm, Challengers not only succeeds as a gripping and epic sports drama, but as a film unafraid to take seriously the innate human drives for dominance and competition that many of our most lauded pundits would pretend don’t exist. Challengers is obsessed with sex in both definitions of the term. It’s also a film that doesn’t need to resort to depictions of the act itself—so well cast that the slightest glance or interaction packs enough meaning to fully convey every ounce of desire.

Like his movie, Guadagnino has proven himself the rarest of Hollywood creatures: an acclaimed filmmaker whose work often brushes up against social issues, but willingly evades a stance for the sake of its characters. While class and race are part of Challengers’s DNA, the film never devolves into a King Richard screed full of lazy depictions of rich white men stopping the rest from being seen.

For all our sakes, Guadagnino would rather put his time and energy into making the Applebee’s where two ace tennis pros finally profess their love look as cinematic as possible. Whether that love is really for each other or the game they have devoted their lives to is what Guadagnino wants us to think about. But he’d rather us do so during an Amazon release that, thanks to his love of the craft, shows an unmistakable difference between big screen cinema and the onslaught of streaming products we mainline in our living rooms.