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The challenging thing about ‘Challengers’

Graphic illustration by Irene Hwang and Meadow Shen

On the surface, “Challengers” is a movie that seems to be about simple competition, passion and desperation to emerge victorious in a tense game of tennis. In fact, the 2-hour movie is told during just one set of one game between two of the three main characters, Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig. But as it turns out, at its core, “Challengers” is a story that explores the intricacies behind three people fighting for what they desire most, and only one of them is tennis. This desire belongs to Tashi Duncan, the third main character and love interest. Meanwhile, Donaldson is fighting for Duncan, and it can be argued that Zweig is fighting for Donaldson, his best friend. At the end of the movie, we can only guess whether any of them truly achieved what they wished for: truthfully, it doesn’t matter. The challengers — Duncan, Donaldson and Zweig — all won and lost something, taking us for a wild ride in the process.

Duncan, played by Zendaya, is a tennis pro — or was — until an unfortunate injury debilitated her, forcing her to retire her dreams and become a tennis coach instead. Donaldson, played by Mike Faist, and Zweig, played by Josh O’Connor, are aspiring tennis players and best friends — or were — until Duncan comes into their lives. Both boys, despite having a strong friendship beforehand, find themselves competing for Duncan’s affection.

What follows is a winding and twisting tale of love, betrayal and tennis, culminating in the game between Donaldson and Zweig at the New Rochelle Challenger. Throughout the movie, we are brought to the past, then returned to the present, where the game continues, and then thrown again into flashbacks that add a new level of dimension to the story. Overall, the plot is rich with surprising pivots, and the suspense had me glued to the screen, making for a pleasant viewing. But what I loved most was the characters — the complex, intricate people with real dreams, flaws, hopes and wants. 

When the film first introduced its main characters and then fed more and more information about them, I found myself trying to rationalize their behaviors and their mistakes, trying to find which of them was more right, or at least, less wrong. This was fruitless, as all of them were flawed, deeply so. They did stupid things and made bad decisions, hurting each other in the process. But the most interesting person to me was Duncan — on the surface, she seemed like the sweetest one, the love interest to be sought after, perfect in all the ways possible: kind, talented, passionate. Yet, at times she was also the most cruel, and could even be considered the main antagonist. Zweig, on the other hand, was the opponent at the net in the Challengers game that the movie takes place through, but he could also be seen as the only true friend, the furthest person from a rival. He is the most carefree and the most forgiving. Finally, Donaldson, despite seeming like a perfect golden boy, is the first to betray the people who trust him, the first to reveal the cracks in the beautiful fabric of 12 years prior. 

As mentioned, the story is told through flashbacks. I have never been a big fan of flashbacks, and I usually find them to be an annoying gimmick, since I already know what will happen. The point of any story is to keep the reader or watcher intrigued, and I found that by knowing the ending, I no longer wanted to uncover the backstory, especially if the present was depressing and the flashbacks were innocently joyful. Perhaps it is because I am sentimental and feel a connection to the characters, but I didn’t like watching them live life knowing that they are going to ruin themselves or be ruined. Yet, I was never bored of the flashbacks in this movie, enjoying the new information they provided. A helpful aspect of this was the fact that, while I resonated with the characters, they were flawed enough that I didn’t mind watching them spiral. Duncan’s injury was deserved, Zweig’s failure was inevitable and Donaldson’s sadness was brought upon by himself. 

Moreover, I was happy with how the movie culminated, with Duncan’s joyful laughter and the game’s tiebreaker. Although I would never know the true outcome of the vague ending, it felt like a conclusion regardless. 

Overall, it was fun to watch, but not beautiful. The story and settings were written to be comedic and suspenseful, not thought-provoking; in fact, as mentioned, most of the story took place during one game, on one tennis court. But if you need something to enjoy at a cinema, something lighthearted, like the recent Barbie movie, by all means reach for this film. On this other hand, if you want something to keep you occupied for weeks, maybe try something else. But above all, don’t watch this with your parents.  

Rating: 4.3/5 stars

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About the Contributor
Claire Guo
Claire Guo, Staffer
(she/her) Claire Guo is a sophomore and first-year staffer in the Epic. She loves reading, writing, creating, and petting her dog.

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