For 'Call Me By Your Name' director Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist star in a smash of a tennis- and love triangle-fuelled drama.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 17, 2024


Tennis is a game of serves, shots, slices and smashes, and also of approaches, backhands, rallies and volleys. Challengers is a film of each, too, plus a movie about tennis. As it follows a love triangle that charts a path so back and forth that its ins and outs could be carved by a ball being hit around on the court, it's a picture that takes its aesthetic, thematic and emotional approach from the sport that its trio of protagonists are obsessed with as well. Tennis is everything to Tashi Duncan (ZendayaDune: Part Two), Art Donaldson (Mike FaistWest Side Story) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'ConnorLa Chimera), other than the threesome themselves being everything to each other. It's a stroke of genius to fashion the feature about them around the game they adore, then. Metaphors comparing life with a pastime are easy to coin. Movies that build such a juxtaposition into their fabric are far harder to craft. But it's been true of Luca Guadagnino for decades: he's a craftsman.

Jumping from one Dune franchise lead to another, after doing Call Me By Your Name and Bones and All with Timothée Chalamet, Guadagnino proves something else accurate that's been his cinematic baseline: he's infatuated with the cinema of yearning. Among his features so far, only in Bones and All was the hunger for connection literal. The Italian director didn't deliver cannibalism in Call Me By Your Name and doesn't in Challengers, but longing is the strongest flavour in all three, and prominent across the filmmaker's Suspiria, A Bigger Splash and I Am Love also. So, combine the idea of styling a movie around a tennis match — one spans its entire duration, in fact — with a lusty love triangle, romantic cravings and three players at the top of their field, then this is the sublime end product. Challengers is so smartly constructed, so well thought-out down to every meticulous detail, so sensual and seductive, and so on point in conveying Tashi plus Art and Patrick's feelings, that it's instantly one of Guadagnino's grand slams.

In 2019, the picture's present day — a choice that enables Challengers to avoid everything pandemic-related — Art and Patrick go racquet to racquet in New Rochelle, New York. Pinging in-between their on-the-court confrontation, after they progress through the tournament on opposite sides to clash in the final, are flashes to moments from 2006 onwards. It was in that year, as teen doubles partners known as "Fire and Ice" (and best friends, and childhood tennis academy roommates), that the pair met Tashi. She's as confident when she's not standing on a green surface as she is on it, and on it she's an undoubtable prodigy. They're both immediately attracted to her. They each ask for her number at the same party while all three are together. In Challengers' later timing, however, Art is her husband and Patrick her ex-boyfriend.

Art has also enjoyed almost every success that a tennis player can hope for, other than winning the US Open. Completing his career slam is his aim, with the New Rochelle contest about getting him back into form to stop a losing streak. Patrick has to sleep in his car to make the fixture; for him, earning a wildcard to the bigger dance and a chance at the kind of glory his former pal has long been basking in is the mission. The duo hasn't talked in years. The reason: a falling out about matters of the heart. But Challengers doesn't simplistically have its two men battle it out for Tashi as a prize, even when she promises a date to whoever wins their first game against — not with — each other in the mid-00s segments. Tashi is a force to be reckoned with. She'd never let herself become a trophy. Her career is cut short due to injury, sparking a move into coaching Art, and she's as ferocious and strategic there — and in their marriage — as she was when pursuing her own tennis fame. Then there's the inescapable bond between Art and Patrick anyway; Tashi's home-wrecker comments about sliding into the middle of their relationship aren't empty in Guadagnino's hands, whether a three-way kiss or loaded words are being exchanged.

The director works with the first feature script by playwright, novelist and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes — and it's no wonder that authenticity beats at the heart of this deeply sultry, raw and evocative (and horny) movie. While this isn't a tale taken from actuality, Kuritzkes is the husband of filmmaker Celine Song, whose Oscar-nominated 2023 debut Past Lives not only leapt into another complicated love triangle but was loosely drawn from her own experiences. The two movies are playing different games, though, yet share the same richness of chemistry, lingering sexual tension, and understanding of how burning love and pining to be seen are life-shaping and -changing sensations. They're each so precisely helmed in their vastly dissimilar ways that they're works of art, and so expertly cast that their stars will always rank the respective flicks as career and performance highlights.

Continuing the trend of Spider-Man love interests giving tennis films a whirl (see: Civil War's Kirsten Dunst with Wimbledon, then Poor Things' Emma Stone with Battle of the Sexes), Zendaya doesn't just make Tashi formidable and unforgettable; her portrayal, which is one of her best ever alongside Euphoria, firmly matches. Neither the movie nor its leading lady polish over the character's fierceness and ruthlessness when it comes to her passion, instead exploring what's behind her intensity from the outset: being a Black star who isn't from a comfortable background in a world that's all about whiteness and privilege. She's magnetic to viewers, and to Art and Patrick, who are brought to the screen with romanticism and vulnerability by Faist, and with spirited but comfortable charm by O'Connor. Challengers loiters at the net, where two sides are pushed together — not as any balls bounce through the bouts depicted, but in unpacking every pairing that can be made from its main trio, racial and economic divides that definte their realities, and the thin line that can become a vast chasm regarding genuinely grasping your dreams versus forever chasing them.

As it hops and rushes about — including between time periods, characters, games and romances — Challengers zips and zings, and lunges and thrusts. Guadagnino's knack for immersion keeps working up the bracket film by film, to hypnotic effect here. There's no Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or Memoria dreaminess to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's lensing, but the same crispness, as seen in his work on Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria as well, remains. New for Challengers is the dynamism of the sports scenes, and of switching from character to ball vantages, each absorbing visual choices. Marco Costa, who returns from Bones and All, edits just as energetically. And amid songs by Donna Summer, Lily Allen and Nelly, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' second Guadagnino score, also after Bones and All, is an adrenaline-dripping disco and electronica whirlwind that couldn't better set and reflect the propulsive mood. Talk about an all-round ace.


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