‘Challengers’ Review: Zendaya Serves Up a Psychosexual Tennis Flick

While far from perfect, 'Challengers' is a memorable movie with major performances from Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor.

(L-R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in Challengers. Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Loud, long, a little messy and very sweaty, Challengers may not be as sexy as its explosive first trailer implied, but it’s still a hell of a movie. Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor make for quite the toxic tennis love triangle at the center of it all, each co-star crackling with chemistry and some deeply realized character work.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

CHALLENGERS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: Justin Kuritzkes
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist
Running time: 131 mins.

The film follows three people who have tied themselves to tennis, for better or worse. Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) was a junior champion poised to be the sport’s next big thing before a horrific injury forced her into coaching; she’s now married to Art Donaldson (Faist), a player who’s great but far from being one of the greats, despite Tashi’s coaching. They met over a decade prior, when Art was besties with the slightly less respectable Patrick Zweig (O’Connor). Challengers makes frequent use of flashbacks to tie this complicated threesome together, as Art and Patrick go from friends to enemies, Tashi and Patrick from lovers to nuisances, Art and Tashi from tennis pals to husband and wife.

Much of the movie’s action takes place over a two-week competition (amusingly called Phil’s Tire Town Challenger, situated on some quaint New Rochelle courts). It’s where Art, Patrick and, inevitably, Tashi meet again after years apart, all nearing the end of their careers but at different stages of acceptance over it. When Art and Patrick face off against each other in the final round, it triggers a great deal of memories that fuel the fire of what could very well be their last match.

Mike Faist and Zendaya in Challengers. Niko Tavernise

That kind of non-linear storytelling gets jarring at times, and the erratic volleying between timelines is one of the film’s major faults. The hair and makeup team do wonders to distinguish these characters over the years, and the actors perform the wear and tear of aging more than well enough to keep things clear. It’s not that it’s confusing, given how each flashback feeds into the current match and vice versa, but it makes for a choppy viewing experience. And it’s not helped by an overzealous use of chyrons, with everything timestamped in a 13-year period with enough specificity that you need to do the math in your seat.

Challengers has this same overbearing streak in other areas too. Director Luca Guadagnino, still chasing the career high of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, goes maximalist on this movie, using bizarre camera angles, relentless slo-mo, and a few questionable needle drops. It’s occasionally overpowering, and sometimes the sound mix even makes it hard to hear the excellent, incisive dialogue. Also, the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack may have used too much synth, a feat this critic thought all but impossible.

There’s a lot to nitpick here, but it’s only because so much of the movie works so well otherwise. The central drama is juicy beyond words, and the way the relationships unravel is delicious. As Tashi Donaldson-nee-Duncan, Zendaya gets to flex a very different acting muscle than what audiences have seen. She’s a tennis-obsessed sociopath (in the way that elite athletes must be, at least a little), determined to stay in the game whatever way she can. She needs to win, but, at the same time, she doesn’t have the most traditional definition of winning. In the flashback scenes to Tashi’s first meeting with the boys, she riles them up not just for her enjoyment, but for the love of the game.

Though the film earns its R rating, it’s not through sex—the three stars are never fully nude, never go further than a steamy makeout or some dry humping. But that doesn’t stop Challengers from being exceptionally sensual, and Tashi’s voyeuristic view of Art and Patrick (and their tennis) adds to that. The boys aren’t on her level as athletes or as psychosexual tennis lovers, and watching Zendaya pull their strings with that sly grin of hers is an absolute delight. She also gets some of the movie’s best lines, delivered with an iciness that’ll knock the wind right out of you.

Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in Challengers. Niko Tavernise

Faist and O’Connor deliver some fantastic dueling performances too. Faist, best known for his scene-stealing turn in the recent West Side Story redux, sheds any vestige of a theater kid background to play Art. In the flashbacks, he’s sentimental and soft, polite but with a penchant for passive aggression. In the now, he’s a tennis machine verging on a mid-life crisis that’s only exacerbated by seeing his old friend—his inevitable emotional implosion comes with a rocket serve that’ll make you jump in your seat. As for O’Connor, Patrick somehow manages to be greasier than the actor’s wayward wanderer in La Chimera and infinitely more smarmy. Patrick’s cool guy schtick is out of gas somewhere in the middle of the movie’s timeline, and though he’s self aware about it, Patrick is still a man who thinks he can charm and connive his way out of anything. He’s not likable, but he’s certainly magnetic, with the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth saying more than he ever will.

The boys go from bunkmates to rivals to bitter foes on and off the court, and as they come to blows over the final round, Challengers serves up greatness. It takes a bit long to get there in the end, and some cinematic tricks may distract you, but when Patrick goes to serve that fateful final ball and Art runs to meet it, all with Tashi watching and waiting to feel that kind of power again, it’s game, set, match.

‘Challengers’ Review: Zendaya Serves Up a Psychosexual Tennis Flick