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Film: Challengers           
Cast: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O`Connor, Darnell Appling, Bryan Doo, Shane T Harris, Nada Despotovich, John McShane
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Rating: 3/5
Runtime: 131 min

A modern take on Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale’, Luca Guadagnino’s tennis psychodrama is generously ladled with overt sexual interplay. The film makes every tennis match look sexual and every conversation thereof, a challenge.

We meet the three main characters at a low-point in their lives. Tennis superstar who turned coach because of a career threatening injury, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) has taken on the responsibility of coaching her husband, Art, and has since transformed him into a world-famous Grand Slam champion. Of late though, he has been on a losing streak – so to jolt him enough to put up a big fight, she signs him up for a lowly “Challenger” event and he finds himself standing across the net from his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor).

In flashback, we see the threesome at a time when Tashi was primed to become the next big tennis superstar. She had these two bashful boy players, Art and Patrick literally eating out of her hand. Guadagnino throws in many dialogues that sound cliched, through Tashi’s tennis talk. To her, tennis “is a relationship. When I play out there like I did today, I feel like I am in love. Nothing else exists” And, going by the sensual allure of this movie, the audience is bound to find themselves hooked.

We see the trio in snippets across several years and in different cities. The night following the US Junior Open leads to a lifelong entanglement. Even though Tashi and Art are married, the movie keeps reflecting on their past and raising questions as to who is in love with whom? The trio, now older but still entangled in ways that are yet to be exposed, have reached a point where the challenger match holds their entire future in balance.

Gudagnino turns this into a psychological character study showing up humans as a callous lot. The central love triangle exposes each in the ways they try to cope with fame, love and hard-work. Tashi is the one who had to toil hard from humble beginnings while the two privileged white boys fresh from boarding school, used tennis mainly to step away from boredom. As the years pass she now has to face Art`s success. Justin Kuritzkes’ smart dialogue lends an edge to the verbal volleys. The narrative teases us with questions. Who does Tashi love? Is she playing a game with both? What is it that drives her? The same goes with Patrick and Art. The sexual energy between the three is almost palpable. The situation is fluid and unstable. The plot keeps churning and the past-present shifts add to the complexity.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom makes everything look crystal clear. The game is shot brilliantly with physical and emotional heft. The camera floats around gently and turns swinger whenever the play dictates. Marco Costa’s editing gives tempo new meaning while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score lends gravity to the physical and psychological parlays. Jonathan Anderson’s costuming adds weight to the allurement. Zendaya, Faist and O’Connor manage to play their roles with great conviction.   

‘Call me by your Name’ Guadagnino has made yet another sharp, flirtatious and engaging film. It’s also a great deal of fun to watch!



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