Challengers Is a Sexy, Simmering Tennis Love Triangle

Movies Reviews luca guadagnino
Challengers Is a Sexy, Simmering Tennis Love Triangle

There’s no need to know, or even enjoy, anything about the sport of tennis to find enjoyment in director Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers. I, for example, don’t know dick about tennis. Still, tennis is inextricably knotted to its sensuous love triangle, which evolves over the course of 13 tumultuous years, climaxing with a match between two estranged players whose love story eclipses the more overt romance between the pair and Zendaya’s tennis prodigy, Tashi Duncan. But it is a story of desire, love, power and co-dependency between three gifted young athletes who all hold that nagging fear, even in their early 30s, that their best years are behind them. The only thing that can reinvigorate their lost sparks is base, animalistic competition, like that which fueled their chaotic threesome over a decade prior to the lowly Fire Town challenger tournament in New Rochelle, New York.

We first meet Tashi and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), married and with a mostly neglected young daughter, after Tashi’s best tennis-playing days are behind her (due to a consequential leg injury) and Art is all but bereft of his mojo. Art has been struggling against players who should otherwise match his skill level. In an effort to get his head back in the game and out of early retirement, Tashi enrolls him in a challenger: A small, U.S. Open qualifier that should be beneath an athlete whose face adorns ads the size of building facades. The goal is to have Art compete against players who are obviously below him in order to loosen him up and regain his confidence. The only problem is, it’s the same kind of minor sporting event that attracts a hard-up guy like Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor).

Thirteen years earlier, Patrick and Art were both just two young tennis studs who once jerked off together (what guys can’t say the same?), in love with the same beautiful woman. Thirteen years later, one of them got the girl, the other is cosplaying as poor, and the former two haven’t spoken to the latter in years. But it’s a rival like Patrick who Art really needs to get his juice back, and maybe Tashi knew all along that they’d find him there, despite how adamantly she objects to having any association with Patrick while in New Rochelle. 

Rewind 13 years again, and the college-age doubles players, longtime friends (and a secret, third thing) Patrick and Art are salivating on the stands over 18-year-old Tashi. But their eyes aren’t just drawn to her ass. They’re drawn to her serve. Both boys grasp Tashi’s power from the moment her racket hits the ball across the court. When the three finally link up at a party after her winning match, the boys can’t help but be lured—like two cartoon characters towards an aromatic pie—to Tashi’s implacable self-assuredness.

Zendaya has finally made the leap from child acting to adult acting—although, I suppose we are choosing to memory-hole Malcolm & Marie, and Dune is, admittedly, kind of a grown-up children’s movie. Off Arrakis, the Euphoria star believably plays a confident young woman who gets off on making horny boys do what she wants. She’s been unconvincing to me in her otherwise lauded performance of Rue on Euphoria, but maybe that’s because she has been, yes, an adult woman playing a teenager for the past two mediocre, overblown seasons of television. In Challengers, Zendaya is allowed to literally grow up on screen, jumping with ease from lean, limber pre-college Tashi into Art’s quiet dominatrix/coach/brand manager. 

Back at that post-game party, Patrick and Art manage to persuade Tashi to show up to their dinky hotel room. In their desperation to kiss her she effortlessly paves the way for the two to make out with each other—a simmering desire between the two men made clear after they divulge an intimate preteen memory where Patrick taught Art how to masturbate. Guadagnino peppers in other homoerotic signifiers, like a scene where the two suck down churros (played perfectly, unassumingly straight), or when Art spits his gum into Patrick’s palm the same way he does for his wife in the present-day.

Tashi clocks the friends’ unfulfilled pining and competitiveness and uses it to her advantage. She begins dating Patrick after promising a date to the winner of a match between the two of them, which she observes with the same intensity as she does watching them 13 years later. The stakes are different but, somehow, still the same. Editor Marco Costa alternates between the Fire Town challenger and the past as it creeps up into the present, clearly indicated by time period markers as the years drag on and the love triangle suffers irreversible setbacks and changes. Art gets the girl, but, in a way, he loses her just as Patrick did. Patrick and Art both possess qualities that Tashi is drawn to, but it’s as if she needs both of them together in order to feel complete, like an endless back-and-forth volley. Patrick, the swaggering playboy, has always been less constrained, opting to continue competing instead of going off to college like Art and Tashi. Art is then able to hone his skills more tangibly for success while Patrick gets left behind. But his rapid rise suffers from a quick burnout, while Patrick still possesses the fire, even if it is now a weak flame, that once fueled Art, despite never reaching the same commercial success.

Back in the present, Art has become emasculated, submissive and dependent on Tashi, no longer returning her serve as an equal. In one particularly pathetic (yet very hot) scene, Art curls up like a baby and lays his head in his wife’s lap in their hotel room after revealing his plans to give up on tennis, urging Tashi to stay with him until he falls asleep. Meanwhile, Patrick has become lost without a match to reignite his spark, sleeping in his car outside of the Fire Town challenger even while coming from a rich family just like Art did. The boys, once embarrassingly named “Fire and Ice” when they played as doubles, need one another just as urgently as Tashi needs them to need each other—and to need her. This is how Challengers remains so erotic in spite of, and also because of, its paltry offering of sexually explicit sequences. It’s all buoyed by longing and unrealized desire, a patient camera fixated on bodies and the sweat that drips off them, and a pulsing techno score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that notably turns quiet, intimate scenes into feeding frenzies—amplifying a build of tension that is often freed so unsatisfactorily (in a good way), always edging just short of climax.

Challengers is also just really, very fun, and Faist, O’Connor and Zendaya are exhilarating to watch play off one another—literally. Initially as unconvinced of O’Connor as I have been of both Zendaya and Guadagnino (forgot about him in Emma. and Mothering Sunday; didn’t care for La Chimera), I found his lusty American boyishness completely irresistible. Faist, conversely, was the inarguable scene-stealer of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. He’s made the transition from the stage to the screen, so clearly apt to dominate in front of a camera that his portrayal of both the overeager and enfeebled versions of Art provides a welcome contrast to his machismo-fueled performance as Riff. 

The film is just as dynamic as its stars. Rapid cuts give the film a cohesive, kinetic rhythm that keeps the story in a near-constant state of momentum, and none of the frames the camera cuts to are superfluous compositions. This is matched by the occasionally dizzying camerawork from Gudagnino’s Suspiria cinematographer (also Apichatpong Weerasethkul’s on Memoria) Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. At one point, the camera assumes the POV of both Patrick and Art, interchanging between the two to see what the other one sees; by the final match, through CGI trickery, the camera has assumed the perspective of the tennis ball bouncing between the men as they fight for something that can’t be physically won. 

Challengers surprised me. It’s a grandiose, propulsive, erotic follow-up to the dull, Tumblr-core emo of Bones and All, and I found myself enthralled by Guadagnino’s latest, in which three of our hottest young actors convincingly, tantalizingly explore alternating dynamics of power and sexuality. Challengers isn’t really a film for tennis fans—it’s a film for fans of guys being a little gay for each other, and also fans of the kind of explosive yearning that’s even hotter than the sex scenes we all like to complain don’t exist anymore. But Challengers treats its tennis matches as the only real outlets for sexual release: The grunts, screams and thrusts of the game are just as scintillating, if not moreso, than fucking.

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: Justin Kuritzkes
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist
Release Date: April 26, 2024

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin