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Written by: Justin Kuritzkes

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Genre: Buddy Love

Opening Image: Tashi Duncan Donaldson (Zendaya) sits in the stands, directly between two 30-something tennis players battling it out on the court: her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), and her ex-lover, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). It’s a pretty blatant visual metaphor and if it were any director other than Luca Guadagnino, one could call it too obvious, even ham-handed; but it is Luca Guadagnino and he’s about to have an absolute blast with this story, so we can’t help but get sucked into the fun.

Set-Up: Art and Patrick are in New Rochelle playing a “challenger,” a lower tier of men’s tennis tournaments—in fact, this particular challenger is “Phil’s Tire Town Challenge,” the name of which should indicate the level of rinky-dinkness. Art is the biggest tennis star the U.S. has seen in a generation, so why is he playing against scruffy Patrick, ranked 201st in the world?

We find out as we start jumping around in time, from present-day to 2006, where we meet the teenaged Art and Patrick in their thesis world, the best of friends and a doubles team at the US Open Boys Final. As a duo they can’t be beat, but when they play each other, it’s very lopsided: Patrick always wins.

Art, an amiable and rather angelic-looking blond boy, asks Patrick to let him win in the tournament the following day so he can impress his grandmother, and Patrick agrees. He can afford to throw the match for his pal because not only is Patrick the superior player by far, he also is supremely confident and doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him. This friendship dynamic works for both Art and Patrick; in fact, they’re so close we sense a few homoerotic vibes vibing (again, this is a Luca Guadagnino film).

Theme Stated: Back in present day, Tashi and Art’s young daughter interrupts her parents having a heated discussion and when Tashi says that Mom and Dad were just talking about tennis, Lily rolls her eyes, “You’re always talking about tennis.” For the trio at the center of this film, it’s all about the game—every conversation is a back-and-forth volley, every interaction is about winning, and all relationships are less about love and more about who’s on what side of a 40-love score.

Catalyst: At the US Girls Singles Final in 2006, the gorgeous and uber-hot Tashi walks out onto the court. In the stands, Art and Patrick gape— who is this otherworldly creature?

Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor both kiss Zendaya as the trio sit on the foot of a bed
The Debate gets physical.

Debate: And who’s going to win her? They’re both hopelessly smitten and the competition begins, but Tashi claims she doesn’t want to be a homewrecker in their friendship. Uh huh, sure. The boys persuade Tashi to come to their hotel room that night for some underage drinking and she sits between them on the bed; she kisses Art, kisses Patrick, kisses both of them together… and then leans back, watching with delight as they kiss each other. Then the little not-a-homewrecker says she’ll give her phone number to whoever wins the singles match the next day.

Break into Two: As Tashi watches from the dead center of the stands, Patrick abandons his pledge to throw the match and basically murders Art on the court, winning the title and the girl.

Fun and Games: Now that we know (most of) the stakes in the story, the competition really heats up in this antithesis world and the setting jumps back and forth in time; in present-day New Rochelle prior to the match, Tashi angrily chews Patrick out for daring to show up and we wonder what happened between them in the past.

Cue the past: in 2007, Art is insanely jealous of Patrick and Tashi and on the court, he tries to get Patrick to confess if they’ve slept together. Patrick says he doesn’t kiss and tell, but he’ll give Art a signal—if he imitates Art’s service motion (by placing the tennis ball in the neck of the racket before serving), that means he’s had sex with Tashi. Of course, Patrick promptly apes Art’s serve with a self-satisfied grin and for the first time, we see a rift opening in their friendship.

Art responds by dropping subtle hints to Tashi that Patrick might be seeing other girls, crushing her, but when he tries the same ruse on Patrick, it falls flat; Patrick sees through him, but congratulates Art on trying to be a winner for once.

Soon afterward, Patrick and Tashi have a vicious argument when Tashi wants to discuss tennis during sex and Patrick angrily says he’s not going to Tashi’s match the next day for Stanford.

B Story: Is the B Story the relationships or the tennis? The A and B Stories are so intertwined, it’s nearly impossible to tell, but Tashi’s love for Patrick, Art’s love for Tashi, and Patrick and Art’s genuine love for each other keeps surfacing, trying to rise above the competitiveness and never quite getting enough oxygen to stay alive.

Midpoint: When Patrick is true to his word and doesn’t show up for Tashi’s match, she is hurt and enraged. In a brutal false defeat, she plays so hard and so recklessly, that she falls and breaks her leg.

Mike Faist sits next to the injured Zendaya, her leg wrapped
A real break at the Midpoint

Bad Guys Close In: Tashi is devastated, suspecting that she’s sustained a career-ending injury and when Art kicks Patrick out of Tashi’s hospital room, the threesome is officially done. Tashi tries to return to tennis, but is unable to and Art sees his chance to have Tashi for himself, asking her to be his coach. It’s not Tashi’s dream, but she throws all of her desire and fire for tennis into Art’s career and against all odds, makes him into a champion.

We catch up to Art and Tashi in present day, married with a child, but their relationship is strained; Art has grown tired of the rigors of competition, which infuriates Tashi, who wants him to go for the one trophy he’s missing, the US Open. But Art is exhausted and as he continues to lose his edge on the court, Tashi gets him some “extra playing time,” which just happens to be Phil’s Tire Town Challenge.

Did she suspect that Patrick, whose career has pretty much gone down the tubes in the years since their breakup, would be playing in dumpy New Rochelle? It’s not clear, but since Tashi never makes a move that won’t lead to a win, chances are she’s engineered this matchup.

The night before the tournament, Patrick seeks Tashi out and accurately assesses her life: she secretly despises Art for only playing tennis to make her happy and she still desires Patrick because he never worshipped the ground she walked on. Tashi stalks off angrily and returns to her husband, who confesses that he wants to retire from tennis and just wants to live life, loving his wife and family.

All Is Lost: Tashi tells Art that if he loses to Patrick the next day, she will leave him.

Dark Night of the Soul: Art is devastated. He begs Tashi to hold him until he falls asleep and she does, but is obviously repulsed by his weakness.

Break into Three: Tashi escapes the hotel and texts Patrick to meet her outside.

Five Point Finale: The ever-stormy Tashi storms the castle; she gathers the team (her and Patrick) and executes the plan: she asks Patrick to throw the match so Art will win and regain his edge. When Patrick angrily refuses, they argue and Tashi spits in his face, which wouldn’t normally lead to wild sex in a rental car, but again, it’s a Luca Guadagnino movie, folks.

On the court the next day, Art is not playing well and we wonder if Patrick will knuckle under and throw the match, but in a high-octane high-tower surprise, Patrick imitates Art’s serve, sending the signal that he slept with Tashi. Art is stunned and with a growing fury, he digs down deep and executes the new plan: he’s now gonna beat Patrick’s ass. Art sends a scorching serve that nearly knocks Patrick’s block off and both men smile at each other and start playing the best tennis of their lives as Tashi watches, exhilarated.

Final Image: In a truly thrilling slow-motion sequence, Art crushes the ball, jumps the net, and comes down hard on Patrick—into his arms. As they embrace, Tashi screams in rage, “Come on!”, followed by a small, joyful smile. Suddenly, they are seventeen again, synthesis has been reached, and the trio restored. We have no idea who’s won and never will, but the game of this film has been so much fun, the trophies no longer seem to matter.