Zendaya Serves and Slays in 'Challengers'

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Starring Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor

Photo: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

BY Marriska FernandesPublished Apr 25, 2024


"You don't know what tennis is... It's a relationship," Zendaya's Tashi says with gusto when she first meets fellow tennis players — and best friends — Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) as teenagers. That's exactly what these young athletes share as they're thrown into a tornado of feisty matches on and off the court over the next decade-plus. Power, lust and ambition take the front seat as the messy trio navigate their athletic careers and fractured relationships.

Tashi and Art are the "it" couple of the world of tennis, or, like an Aston Martin ad describes them, "game changers." Former tennis prodigy Tashi operates as Art's coach and manager after a career-ending injury, and his wife after a tumultuous courtship involving Patrick. With Art on a losing streak, she convinces him to play a low-level Challenger tournament, where they're surprised to find Patrick as the opponent.

Challengers opens with Art and Patrick playing in this tournament with Tashi seated at centre court, watching intensely. The film flashes back to 13 years earlier revealing that Art and Patrick were best friends and tennis partners. They meet Tashi, a strong tennis player toward whom they both instantly gravitate. Their love triangle continues to unfold as the movie shifts between the past and the present.

Luca Guadagnino's follow up to 2022's Bones and All is equal parts glitzy sports drama and sexy arthouse, with techno beats punctuating nearly every scene. The psychological warfare, inflated egos and athletic ambitions are on full display between the leads with heated matches on the court matching the intensity of the steamy sessions between Tashi and her partner(s).

The strength of Challengers lies with the well-cast actors. While Justin Kuritzkes's script has its faults, in the capable hands of the three leads, the well-written dialogue lands — especially the material served up to Zendaya, which proves that she's no longer just supporting character material. She owns the role of Tashi, flirting with the camera and her "two little white boys." This film wouldn't have worked if it wasn't for how Zendaya expertly portrays a messy, flawed and extremely ambitious woman. Tashi is a ruthless motivator and manipulator — and, in many ways, as she put it, a "homewrecker" — and yet, Zendaya can make audiences sympathize with her mostly without judging her.

Another actor who smashes his winning role in a perfect turn as a charming player, literally and figuratively, is Josh O'Connor. Watching him flirt and falter allows audiences to forget he played a sincere and earnest role on Netflix's The Crown as a young Prince Charles. As Art, Faist might be the weakest link between the three, but he pulls his weight in the final act bringing forth a defeated player who no longer finds joy in the sport.

The film has its share of horny scenes, as can be expected from Guadagnino's films. The three-way action with Zendaya, O'Connor and Faist heats up the first act, but the real action happens after as the mind games and relationship drama unfolds over the years.

The script feels structured like a tennis match, bouncing between sets spanning over 13 years, going back and forth between ages 18 to 31 and in some years in between. And yes, keeping track of said timeline is an entirely separate game of its own.

Challengers, though, is not without its challenges. The script falls short in the second half — and, at 131 minutes, the film drags on and feels overplayed. While Guadagnino clearly enjoys his fancy camerawork, opting for the ball's point of view as it's tossed across the court, the effect ends up as a rather dizzying sequence that feels unnecessary.

Although at times Challengers might be as messy and flawed as its lead characters, it's certainly one hell of a match — a sweaty, sexy spectacle that serves and slays.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

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