When I first saw that Challengers, the latest from Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, was being presented in IMAX, I admit to being thrown off balance a bit. After all, this is the director whose previous work was an unassuming indie about star-crossed cannibals on a cross-country journey through the States. But as it turns out, Guadagnino’s releases are perhaps better suited to a more pronounced presentation than most of the blockbusters that the studios decide can make a few extra bucks per ticket by leveling up. With releases like I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the most sensuous filmmakers working today, whose work isn’t meant to simply be seen but to be felt with all the senses.

Challengers chiefly centers around the complicated relationship between three characters over a 13 year period. We begin in 2006, where high school tennis players Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) have made it to the boys’ junior doubles championship match at the US Open. While at the tournament, they sit slack-jawed in the stands as much-touted phenom Tashi (Zendaya) continues to make a name for herself on the court. Art and Patrick are both instantly taken with her and inelegantly try to make passes at Tashi, with Patrick taking the first set as the initial winner of her affections. But as Art and Tashi move onto college ball at Stanford while Patrick goes pro, a palpable love triangle forms when Tashi suffers a career-ending injury and Art is there to pick up the pieces in Patrick’s absence.

Anyone who has watched a tennis match live is familiar with the back-and-forth head motion that one needs to participate in to keep up with the action and in several ways, Guadagnino replicates this experience. After establishing a critical event in 2019 that unexpectedly binds the three characters together, he sends us zig-zagging chronologically at points when both Patrick and Art seem to have the upper hand in either their careers or in their relationship with Tashi. Editor Marco Costa has a ball setting the rhythm of these sequences, with some exchanges between characters emulating a lightning-fast rally and other scenes playing out at a practice pace. Thankfully, the cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom isn’t non-stop whip pans the whole movie but he does judiciously utilize camera movements that evoke the motion of an exciting match.

It’s all set to a propulsive and unforgettable score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who broke onto the film composition scene together with their Oscar-winning work in 2010’s The Social Network. Like that film, Challengers uses a nonlinear narrative that builds up tension like strings on a racket as we throttle through time and gain more context for the individual plot points. I’ve said for years that the advantage with IMAX screenings is necessarily for the larger picture but rather for the more sophisticated sound setup and the music in this film alone is worth the upgrade from standard presentation. The tennis scenes here are among the most cinematic I’ve ever seen, with Guadagnino and his team constantly finding inventive angles to showcase the action, while Reznor and Ross keep our hearts pounding with their galvanic beats.

While Challengers more than holds its own as a sports movie, it mostly functions as a romantic drama between these three complex characters and is just as electrifying as such. Zendaya has been everywhere these days but this is the best place to see her, giving the best performance so far in her young career. It would be easy to see Tashi as a prize to be won by both of these boys but thanks to Zendaya’s boundlessly confident performance along with strong writing from first-timer Justin Kuritzkes, her character always feels in control of her situation and the story at large. One-dimensionally, Art could be viewed as the white knight while Patrick can be seen as a rapscallion but the two trade off between virtuous and wretched often enough that it’s hard to label one as “good guy” and the other as “bad guy”. Challengers is sinewy and sultry filmmaking that truly deserves to be seen in the largest format possible.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Fall Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt about a down-and-out stuntman who must find the missing star of his ex-girlfriend’s upcoming blockbuster film.
Streaming on Netflix is Unfrosted, a comedy biopic starring Jerry Seinfeld and Melissa McCarthy which is loosely based on the true story of the creation of Pop-Tarts as Kellogg’s and Post Cereal compete to see if they can produce a revolutionary breakfast pastry in 1963 Michigan.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is The Idea Of You, a romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine centering on a relationship that develops between a single mother and the lead singer of a popular boy band.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup