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Frenesy Film Company, 2024


Luca Guadagnino / Justin Kuritzkes

Reading Time:

7 minutes

ChallengersAfterpxrty (YYABID45DSUN9L0A)
00:00 / 08:14

📷 : Used with permission, Bartos Gyorgy


Masala Chai:

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Movies and TV shows about toughness and athletic competition


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Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes

Reba Chaisson


Loss is often viewed as the death of a loved one, but it can also refer to the sudden loss of an ability we once had. In both instances, we grieve. After denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, the stages of grief note that we accept our loss and figure out a way forward by discovering or nurturing a newfound purpose. But according to psychologists, sometimes we never get to acceptance. Because the loss is so devastating, we carry the emotional weight wherever we go, and it manifests in our treatment of others. In addition to being a story about a love triangle, Challengers is about the damage such baggage can inflict on us and those we care most about.

Played by Zendaya (Spiderman: Homecoming, The Greatest Showman), Tashi is a confident but sociable 18-year-old tennis phenom who believes a match is about “a relationship” with her opponent. She is quick on her feet, powerful with the racquet, and has an intense yell when she wins a long and active volley. Smitten by her beauty, talent, and passion for winning, roommates and best friends Art and Paul, who are strong tennis players themselves, fall for Tashi while attending one of her matches. Their mouths drop the moment she removes her sweater and steps onto the court. The heads of the spectators turn left and right with the movement of the ball, but Art and Paul stare only at Tashi, as if in a drunken daze despite neither having had a drink.

In a conversation with Art and Paul during a party at her home, Tashi mentions that she’s going to Stanford in the fall. When Paul (Josh O’Connor) asks why she prefers to beat up on college girls in tennis rather than go professional, she laughs flirtatiously and responds, “You know nothing about tennis.” It’s a “relationship” with the other player, she explains. Paul and Art become so enraptured by Tashi that a years-long competition ensues in a game the boys might call, “Who gets the girl?” and Tashi would dub “Which boy is most aggressive on the court?” Tashi’s standards are simple; you must win. On this point, she is inflexible.

Already a student at Stanford, Art (Mike Faist) becomes close friends with Tashi. Both are at the top of their tennis games until Tashi takes a fall that ends her tennis career. No longer able to play, she pours herself into coaching Art at the professional level, imploring him to win every match and even questioning his desire to win when he loses. She is viewed in the tennis world as a good coach, but behind the scenes she is mean about it.

Challengers reminds me of the 1983 movie, Class, with Jacqueline Bisset, Rob Lowe, and Andrew McCarthy. It’s about an 18-year-old boarding school student falling for an older woman who turns out to be his roommate’s mother. The movie was promoted as a comedy, but the story contained themes about deep sadness, mental illness, and the difficulties of being mired in controlling families with huge amounts of wealth. I always felt the movie’s marketing team shot itself in the foot with this one, since it was a more important and meaningful story than just a film about laughs. Roger Ebert wrote that “the movie's ads [were] devoted to revealing that very point.” The New York Times commented that “The movie can't make up its mind whether it's a lighthearted comedy … or a romantic drama.” Today, Rotten Tomatoes rates Class at 49% and IMDB gives it a 6.0. Promotions for Challengers suggest it is a fun film where a tennis phenom toys with two guys vying for her affection. Like Class, it has some funny moments, but the film says much more.

Challengers is a commentary on what can happen when we are no longer able to do what we once could. And the younger we are, the more difficult a time we have coping with the loss of a significant part of our identity, one we have honed for the previous 15 of our first 18 years of life. We question who we are now and wonder where we direct our energy. 

When musicians lose the ability to play, they go through periods of frustration and mourning. This is vividly depicted in the 2019 movie, Sound of Metal, where Ruben, a professional heavy metal drummer, begins losing his hearing. He smashes things in his home and is impatient with the people around him in his desperation to just “fix the problem” now. Gradually, he learns to communicate in other ways.

The same frustration and mourning applies to athletes, particularly when they are robbed of their abilities early on in their careers, before they have had the chance to challenge themselves and see how far they can take their talents. To stay connected to their game, some elite athletes immediately move into coaching. Researchers argue that this “fast-tracking” of players is premature.

An article by Mentally Tough Tennis acknowledges that elite athletes have some clear advantages over coaches who have not played at a high level. It adds, however, that the former phenoms have not focused on honing skills like patience, empathy and athletic skill‑development, all needed to nurture a player’s growth and maturation. Researchers have also expressed concern that fast‑tracking “may perpetuate incorrect, inappropriate, and even abusive coaching practices” which sometimes stem from the newly minted coach's time as a player. Years after her injury, Tashi still demeans Art whenever he loses a match. When he explains that he is tired and ready to retire, she ignores him. Instead, she devises an unscrupulous plan for Art to win and even involves his friend, Paul, in the scheme.

Living vicariously through others is one thing. Behaving as if our most central identity is deeply entangled with other people’s accomplishments indicates something is awry, that some level of maturation has not been achieved. Tashi doesn’t seem to have accepted that she is no longer the player. Art’s life is not hers, nor are his tennis competitions hers to win. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot undo the injury that ended her own aspirations to play professional tennis. Her refusal or inability to accept this risks the wellbeing and friendship of the two men closest to her.

Tennis has a feel and cadence, which is reflected in Challengers. Much of the movie is shot during the daylight with warm, sunny weather and calm winds. People are lightly dressed in bright colors and their spirits are high. The game commences only when the chatter dies down upon the umpire’s announcement to “Quiet please.” Then, there is no noise except the sound of the ball being served. The heads of the audience move with the rhythm and tempo of the play. So, during the film, spectators are frequently shown turning their heads in unison from left to right and right to left, coordinated with the ball’s impact against the racket and its bounce on the tennis court. The faster the ball moves, the faster the spectators’ heads move. It is as if the ball, the racket, and the court are providing background music for an otherwise quiet affair, until a point is won.

Like tennis, Challengers is layered, visiting the characters’ pasts and volleying back to the present. This can be a bit disorienting at times because it is not always clear what is the past versus the present. Nonetheless, Challengers is a film whose look and feel draws you into a story about a love triangle, where each participant struggles to get what they want without losing the other two. At its center, the film is a story about handling loss in a way that doesn’t lead to us losing everyone that means something to us.

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