Review: ‘Challengers’

Zendaya Is Aces in Luca Guadagnino's Steamy Tennis Romance

Is it a coincidence that Challengers screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes is husband to Celine Song, director of last year’s beautiful, acclaimed romance Past Lives, seeing that both deal with unconventional love triangles? Maybe, maybe not, but I’m here for all of it, and if the two are responsible for ushering a new wave of films that can explore taboo with depth, passion, intensity, and humor, then we should all be so lucky.

Not that there are clear similarities between the two films: Past Lives’ interactions are all thoughtfully considered ruminations. Challengers, true to the sport at its heart, is full of verbal rallies and volleys and backhands, lots of backhands, to win at the game of love which is as competitive as any championship tennis match. It’s outrageously funny, steamy, and might even get you back into tennis, as it did me.

Even the narrative ping-pongs around in time, playing the corners and the edges to depict two different periods in the lives of three tennis pros. Zendaya is the epitome of calculated sexy cool as Tashi Duncan, who at one point was a hot-shot tennis star on the rise to Serena Williams levels of dominance. But now, after suffering a career-ending injury, she’s coach and manager to Art, played by the boyish West Side Story breakout, Mike Faist. A few years earlier, Art was a multi-time Grand Slam champion, but now at the age of 31 he’s burned out, tired, and in a major slump. Tashi enters Art into the ATP Challenger tour, where he can destroy inferior competition and get his groove back.

Swimming in inferior waters just happens to be home for Patrick, though. Played with shady charm by Josh O’Connor, Patrick is Art’s former BFF and also one of Tashi’s past lovers. He’s also hit on some hard times but, frankly, he kinda seems to be right where he belongs slumming it on the Challenger tour, sleeping in his car, begging for scraps of food. He eats when he wins, or sometimes just if he shows up. Art and Tashi have endorsement deals, but he’s got the foolish pride of the starving artist.

Was this all part of a calculated plan by Tashi to get Art back to his competitive best? Or were her motives more…personal? See, Patrick has kinda been hanging around in Art and Tashi’s lives for nearly a decade. And in one of the film’s many flashbacks we see how it all started, as teenagers, where the guys are fresh-faced junior doubles champions and Tashi is on the fast track to superstardom. While attending the same party, the two horny dudes, because that’s what they are, convince Tashi to join them in their messy hotel room. A few drinks leads to some light flirting, in which she taunts them about going after the same girl. That soon leads to them kissing her, and then the guys kissing one another. There’s a homoerotic subtext throughout Challengers but it’s only interesting when framed from the perspective of the person in control, and that is undeniably Tashi.

Shot with style and panache by Guadagnino, Challengers literally and figuratively places Tashi between the two most important men in her life. Her head swiveling left and right as Art and Patrick battle it out…for the title, or for love (?), Tashi is always a point or two ahead, maneuvering them wherever she wants and convincing them to feel whatever she needs them to at the moment. It’s such an authoritative performance by Zendaya that it threatens to make you hate Tashi a little bit, and to feel sorry for those who love her. But she is who she is only because competition, and winning, are all she’s ever known. She’s so damn good at everything, and she always plays to win. Tashi is the type of person you love to hate and hate to love.

Like a match with constant lead changes, Challengers never stays on one footing for very long. With the characters going through so many twists and turns, some of their choices become a bit questionable, and the ending is ambiguous to a fault, but the trick is how deftly Guadagnino and his cast are able to stay light on their feet throughout. They bound easily from screwball comedy to melodrama with each serve. Backed by a surprisingly thumping score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, Challengers holds court as the most entertaining sports dramedy in ages. As for who wins? Well, we all do!

Challengers opens in theaters on April 26th.


Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-challengersIs it a coincidence that Challengers screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes is husband to Celine Song, director of last year's beautiful, acclaimed romance Past Lives, seeing that both deal with unconventional love triangles? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm here for all of it, and if the...