Sparks Fly On And Off Tennis Court In Electrifying 'Challengers'

'Call Me By Your Name' Director Serves Up Sultry, Layered Sports Drama

Ruben Rosario, Film Critic

“Challengers” is a film of glistening bodies, pregnant pauses and desconstructive needling, set to pulsating techno beats and the loud thwack of tennis racquets. It's an intoxicating cocktail that's just as interested in what makes its central trio of athletes tick than in exploring their sculpted physiques.

 It's been nearly a month since I saw the latest sensory experience from director Luca Guadagnino, and the contact high it gives still hasn't worn off. It is, as the kids say these days, a vibe, one that might have you wondering what the fuss is all about if you're not on its wavelength. To fully connect with this sensual sports drama requires full surrender. It's as if a voice whispered three little words softly in your ear: “just let go.”  

From left, Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in

Photographer: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

From left, Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in "Challengers," directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The film opens in pre-pandemic splendor, in August of 2019, during a low-profile tennis tournament in New Rochelle, New York. On the court are Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a household name who is experiencing an extended slump, and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), a skilled player whose career never quite reached the same heights and is currently in a tailspin.  Even before screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes puts words in their mouths, you sense there's history, and bad blood, between the handsome men. 

Watching the evenly matched contenders face off with aggressive abandon, in the middle of the crowd, is Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), Art's wife, but just as crucially, his coach, You'd better get used to her laserlike gaze, because Guadagnino keeps returning to it throughout the film. It's clear the baggage between these three beautiful people extends beyond the game of tennis, though it's inextricably linked to the sport. and the outcome of this particular match will have repercussions that reverberate well beyond the ESPN news cycle. 

Another match of sorts then begins, as Guadagnino and Kuritzkes ping-pong back and forth in time to reveal how these athletes met, what barriers were erected between them and how their paths intersect over the years. Back in their late teens, Art and Patrick were not rivals but longtime besties. You feel the exuberance waft off the screen as the pair clinch the boys' junior title at the 2006 U.S. Open. The lads jump into each other's arms with a passion that surpasses many romantic couples' fervor. How close are these insanely talented, ostensibly hetero adolescents? They finish each other's churros. With playful gusto. 

Mike Faist, left, stars as Art and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino's

Photographer: Niko Tavernise

Mike Faist, left, stars as Art and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino's "Challengers," an Amazon MGM Studios film.

Kuritzkes' nonlinear script eventually makes its way to the moment Art and Patrick become instantly infatuated with it-girl tennis whiz Tashi Duncan, who can rock an impossibly skimpy outfit and work a reception full of sponsors. One night, the boys invite their intimidating colleague to their hotel room, half-convinced she won't show up. Cut to the unexpected knock on the door. 

You may or may not be surprised to learn that what ensues is more restrained than what the movie's marketing teases. The “Y tu mamá también” parallels are palpable, but a frank sexual content does not follow, and that's okay, because what the scene achieves is more important: it lays out the power dynamics that drive “Challengers.” 

One could take issue with the fact Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name,” “A Bigger Splash”) is asking viewers to buy these adult thespians (Zendaya in ther mid-20s, Faist and O'Connor in their early 30s at the time of production) as libidinous go-getters in their late teens.

Josh O'Connor as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in

Photographer: Niko Tavernise

Josh O'Connor as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in "Challengers," directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

It's a sizable suspension of disbelief that youthful mannerisms and hair manipulation can only go so far to pull off. All the same, Art's shyness, Patrick's competitive swagger and Tashi's ability to read the room and seize control snap into focus, climaxing in that smoldering closeup of Zendaya, gazing in lewd approval of what's unfolding before her with the command of a pre-Code screen queen.

“Challengers” may take place in the 21st century, but its spirit hovers around the early 1930s, that period is Hollywood history where filmmakers working in the studio system could push the envelope, especially in their portrayal of female sexuality. Zendaya as Tashi appears to channel the raw and uncompromising presence of Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face” and Jean Harlow in “Red-Headed Woman” in the way these women wielded the power they exerted over men like a weapon. The “Euphoria” star has never been better, and her male co-stars hold their own, and then some. 

The cast is ready to take on the sprightly, heteroflexible game of musical chairs that Guadagnino and Kuritzkes have woven. It hews closer to Ernst Lubitsch, the German-born director of “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be or Not to Be,” than, say, someone like Bernardo Bertolucci, whose own film about a young romantic triangle, “The Dreamers,” is most certainly in “Challengers'” DNA.

Several colleagues have pointed out the striking similarities between Guadagnino's film and “Design for Living,” Lubitsch's 1933 rom-com gem, starring Mirian Hopkins as a woman torn between the artist (Gary Cooper) and the playwright (Fredric March) who love her. 

Kuritzkes, who is married to “Past Lives” director Celine Song, brings a gravity to Tashi, Art and Patrick while preventing the narrative from becoming bogged down in ennui. “Challengers” could have been a cold and clinical dissection of the ways of the human heart, letting simmering resentments drive the story, but that's not the way this movie plays ball. Guadagnino and Kuritzkes take the building blocks of a sports-world telenovela and elevate them into a thorny, psychologically dense portrait of ambition, disenchantment and lust, for the game and life in general, that truly cares for its characters. 

Mike Faist, left, stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino's

Photographer: Niko Tavernise

Mike Faist, left, stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino's "Challengers," an Amazon MGM Studios film.

The film makes no bones (and all) that tennis here is a metaphor for sex, unapologetic as it doles out pieces of information the way someone will edge their sexual partner, bringing them closer and closer to climax, then prolonging that release until the moment is just right. Capturing the cadences in these characters' frequently fraught interactions is a brash and assertive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. How boldly does it impinge on the movie? Its nightclub thrums and beats will suddenly blare halfway through a scene. The strategy ought to be obtrusive, but it works like gangbusters. 

Sadly, “Challengers'” strong libido, the way viewers can cut the sexual tension with a knife, has prompted some fellow critics, in Florida and elsewhere, to write some unfortunate things in their reviews. Grown men are approaching the film's unmistakably homoerotic allure with all the maturity of grade schoolers who point at someone and say they've got cooties. It is yet another example of the puritanical streak that has tossed sex in U.S. studio film to the sidelines. 

Ignore the prudes and treat yourself, because “Challengers,” a very queer film about straight people, keeps its promise of showing you a swell, fulfilling time. It's that hot date you want to see again, because it keeps you invested, and on your toes, down to a gloriously over-the-top ending that finds Guadagnino, his stars and the entire production team bringing their “A” game, and it's such a thrill. Yes, Luca, it was good for me, too. 

“Challengers” is now showing across South Florida in wide release, including limited IMAX engagements that end Thursday at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura and AMC Sunset Place.  

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