Challengers Review: Zendaya Is The Heart And Soul Of The Adroitly Crafted Film

Challengers Review: Zendaya lives up to the hype not just by playing an irresistible seductress with captivating aplomb but by also digging deep into the mind of a woman who will not take no for an answer.

Challengers Review: Zendaya Is The Heart And Soul Of The Adroitly Crafted Film

A still from Challengers. (courtesy: challengersmovie)

Tennis isn't just a game in which you hit a ball with a racquet, says Zendaya's clinically single-minded Tashi Duncan, a champion whose career was cut short by an injury. It is a relationship, she insinuates. What she leaves unsaid but Luca Guadagnino's Challengers does not is that sport has a way of shifting not so imperceptibly with the ebbs and tides of form, confidence and the courage to go for broke.

As it usually is in life, in Luca Guadignino's Challengers, tennis is about human equations and mind games. It serves as both glue and repellent in the lives of three people in a messy menage e trois that sees the ball being hit from one court to the other and back without let. It yields a fascinating film that is erotic and exhilarating without having to take recourse to overt means of titillation.

Challengers could, to an extent, be seen as an elaboration on Guadagnino's self-avowed "desire" trilogy - I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and Call Me by Your Name. It is a sensuous and beguiling sports film that isn't only about building up a tennis rivalry to a crescendo with the aim of delivering a serve-and-volley game that produces an array of rousing cross-court winners.

It gets just about everything right but nothing that Challengers contains can outgun its incredibly well conceived and twisty finale. Backed by a hardcore techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails (who worked with Guadagnino on 2022's Bones and All), it is informed with a blinding flash of inspiration that counts for way more than a match point won. It is another level altogether.

The enticing drama of fractured relationships hinges on a story of vacillating love, ambition, ego and obsession. Three tennis prodigies whose lives have intertwined but led to divergent results get swept along as self-interest and loathing drives them on to risky turf.

One of the three, a three-time NCAA title holder, had to stop playing tennis before she stepped out of her teens, one has gone all the way to the top of the sport and the third has languished in anonymity having failed miserably to fulfil his potential. They are inextricably yoked to each other.

Challengers is set during the final match of a 2019 ATP tour tournament. It culminates in former boarding school bunkmates Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) playing in the final as the former's life partner and tennis coach Tashi watches the contest as a spectator and a keen and invested observer.

Art Donaldson is a tennis star who is on a losing streak in the run-up to the US Open, a tournament that he must win to complete a career Grand Slam. Tashi suggests that he enter a low-risk challenger at the New Rochelle Tennis Club, outside New York, to get back to winning ways before the Big One that has eluded him.

Everything threatens to get worse when Tashi learns that Patrick, a man she and Art had erased from their lives nearly decade ago, is also in the line-up. Patrick is broke. His credit card has a problem, He cannot check into a hotel. He sleeps in his car. His life and career clearly haven't taken him where he would have loved to be when he partnered Art in college events.

The story of tennis players who have known each other intimately for over a decade is pieced together with the help of flashbacks that track the evolution of their friendship and affairs marred by deception and dodgy behaviour. The trio is too self-absorbed to be looking for empathy. That is the biggest challenge that the film poses. Since Tashi, Art and Patrick are willing to go to any lengths to achieve what they want, one thing that they are definitely not mindful of is niceties.

It is left to the audience to figure out exactly how to relate to the threesome. Which way should our feelings for them sway? Should we root for them or detest the things that they say and do to each other and to themselves? Ambiguity holds the upper hand in the game that Challengers plays.

Playwright Justin Kuritzkes's screenplay is so full of emotional and moral opacities that one isn't ever seeking to egg on friends-turned-foes Patrick and Art or the single-minded Tashi, who is committed to helping Art work his way out a slump. She has her job cut out for her. She will do anything it takes not to be found wanting.

Challengers is a stylish, adroitly crafted psychodrama that puts tennis at its centre and, aided by the three brilliantly self-aware central performances, hits the ball right out of the park. O'Connor plays an absolute twerp with stunning flair. He irritates, he provokes, and he does not pull a punch or budge from his presumptuous ways. Every step the actor takes clicks.

Faist fleshes out Art Donaldson, a man more manipulated than manipulating, with just as much conviction. The two actors perform a duet that is full of highs. Their jousts on and off the court give the film its hypnotic vibe.

But, all things considered, it is Zendaya who is the heart and soul of Challengers. Her character is at one point described by Patrick as "the hottest woman I have ever seen". Zendaya lives up to the hype not just by playing an irresistible seductress with captivating aplomb but by also digging deep into the mind of a woman who will not take no for an answer.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (whose credits include the Palme d'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as also Call Me by Your Name) brings his proven sense of texture and depth coupled with his ability to use the camera like the eye of a detached and distanced viewer of interiors of a world full of contradictions to bear upon the visuals.

Part of the allure of Challengers also stems from its fragmented timeline that reveals encounters and exchanges, both youthfully passionate and instantly scarring, that bring to the fore in the form of driblets that are both illuminating and enrapturing, the ever-shifting dynamics of what alternates between a fraught love triangle and a tale in which a wedge the size of a tennis court is driven between former tennis mates.

Challengers is extraordinarily well-chiselled cinema. It is as tangible as it is evocative.


Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist


Luca Guadagnino