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

(L to R) Mike Faist stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino’s 'Challengers,' an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Opening in theaters April 26 is ‘Challengers,’ directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist.

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Initial Thoughts

There have been justified complaints for quite some time now that adult-oriented films are hard to find in the mainstream marketplace. ‘Challengers’ could go a long way toward rectifying that. This three-hander from director Luca Guadagnino – known for sensual, voluptuous, emotion-charged efforts like ‘Call Me By Your Name’ – is an intense, erotically infused character study of three college tennis players and their 13-year journey both together and apart.

‘Challengers’ is not a particularly explicit film – save for one bracing scene of full-frontal male nudity in a locker room – but it is a highly sexual one, as desire hangs like a constantly threatening storm cloud over the lives of Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Mike Faist), and Patrick (Josh O’Connor). What makes this film so fascinating and irresistible is seeing how that physical desire overlaps with all three players’ emotional needs and differing levels of ambition to become champions. These are fully-fleshed out characters in a fleshy and sumptuous morality play, heighted by ravishing cinematography and a typically outstanding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Story and Direction

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of 'Challengers', a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of 'Challengers', a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

‘Challengers’ doesn’t tell its tale in linear fashion, opening in 2019 and the flashing back 13, 12, and eight years (in addition to “the day before” at one point). When we first meet our three leads, it’s at a tiny little nothing tennis tournament – the Phil’s Tire Town Challenge – in New Rochelle, New York. Tashi and Art are married with a child and travel with an entourage that includes her mother, plus Art’s physical conditioning therapist and a security guard. Judging by where they stay and how they travel – not to mention the giant billboard we spot for a luxury car that features both -- the couple are quite wealthy.

Patrick, on the other hand, pulls into town for the open and sleeps in his car when his credit card doesn’t work at the local fleabag motel. He’s hungry, unshaven, and smells. He appears to have zero money, counting on the nominal fee he’ll earn for just appearing at the tournament to get him through until he wins the championship money. It quickly becomes clear that Art is a wildly successful pro looking to find his game again – with the help of Tashi, who’s also his coach -- before attempting to get back into the U.S. Open, while Patrick is perhaps an even better player who just hasn’t had the right breaks.

As the movie progresses, we skip back in time to find out how these three came together and eventually (sort of) split apart. Art and Patrick, we learn, have been bunkmates since they were 12 and have gone through tennis camps and academies together. They’re like brothers and perhaps a little more: when they first meet the beautiful, poised, sharp-beyond-her-years Tashi at a mixer for young players – who both are absolutely smitten by – they confess later to her in their hotel room that it was Patrick who taught Art the art of sexual self-gratification.

Tashi’s amusement at this and apparently instant understanding of the boys’ relationship – Patrick is more confident, outgoing, and even arrogant, while Art is reserved, shy, and lacks his pal’s confidence – allows her to easily bend the two to her will in that room, even if things don’t go quite as Art and Patrick initially fantasize. But it’s Patrick who ends up dating Tashi, and while all three remain friends, it’s clear that Art is secretly, painfully in love with her, while the relationship between Tashi and Patrick is more transactional in nature (“Are we talking about tennis?” he says at one point as they get hot and heavy in his room. “We’re always talking about tennis,” Tashi replies).

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

(L to R) Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s 'Challengers,' an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The blurred, constantly intersecting lines of their professional and personal lives – as both Tashi’s career and her relationship with Patrick come to an abrupt end, driving her into the willing arms of Art and cleaving the two young men’s bond in two – form the meat of the narrative in ‘Challengers,’ leading back to Phil’s Tire Town Challenge and why it’s so important for Art to beat his former friend once and for all. But all three know each other well enough to keep manipulating each other right up to the end, with their dysfunctional desires and ambitions fueling each of them in different ways.

Guadagnino, who spent a few years in the horror genre recently with his overripe ‘Suspiria’ remake and the underrated cannibal love story ‘Bones and All,’ has fashioned perhaps his best, most complete, and most accessible film to date here. Channeling the flavor of ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ he shoots his three leads and most of the movie’s action in stark, intimate fashion, relying largely on close-ups of their faces – the two men literally drip sweat onto the camera during the final set of their climactic match -- and bodies, whether it be O’Connor’s hairy, muscular legs, Faist’s narrow, pale ones, or Zendaya’s sleek flanks. All three fill the screen impressively, drawing the viewer into their psyches often without saying a word.

But aside from the electricity and sense of nerve endings sparking to life that the leads generate in proximity to each other – especially during their initial hotel encounter -- there’s an intense physicality to the movie overall. In one final sequence, the director and ace cinematographer Sayomphu Mukdiphrom somehow shoot the match from the perspective of the tennis ball itself as it frenetically spins through the air. This is backed impressively by Reznor and Ross’s pulsating score, which channels ‘80s dance music and heightens the subtle emotional intensity present under all the physical action.

A Perfect Threesome

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.

(L to R) 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. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Zendaya has been impressive in just about all of her big-screen work to date (we’ve never watched ‘Euphoria’), but ‘Challengers’ provides her (thanks to Justin Kuritzkes’ detailed screenplay) with perhaps her best character to date. Enigmatic and alluring when we first meet her, Tashi stays that way even as the more complex nature of her character comes to the fore. Relentless as a player – she mows down her competition with the same ferocity that the actor’s Chani cut down Harkonnen soldiers in ‘Dune: Part Two’ – she is forced to pivot when her career comes to a shattering end. And pivot she does, making Art the avatar for her ambitions whether he wants to be or not.

Does Tashi love Art? It’s difficult to say. But it’s clear that she’s drawn more strongly to the reckless, cunning Patrick, even all these years later. It’s also clear that she sees right through both men, and the fact that they are each flawed in their own way allows her to exert control over them. Tashi doesn’t let anyone push her around or stand in her way – life’s too short, especially when you’re a young woman whose career goes out of your control – and she’ll do whatever she can to steer things her way.

Patrick, of course, is the wild card in all this, although even his outward appearance as a struggling tennis bum masks a different reality that Tashi reminds him about. A constant smirk tugging at his mouth and always threatening to turn into a sneer, Patrick refuses in many ways to grow up but also does his best not to play into Tashi’s games. Josh O’Connor, best known as Prince Charles on ‘The Crown,’ plays this entitled young American with just the right amount of curdled privilege.

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

(L to R) Mike Faist stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino’s 'Challengers,' an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The third part of this triangle is Art, with Mike Faist following up his outstanding breakout in ‘West Side Story’ with another superb performance. Art has the talent, but doesn’t quite have the same drive as either Tashi or Patrick, and one gets the sense that he wants to focus on other things beside just hitting a ball back and forth on the court. Yet he is just as capable as manipulation as either one of them, even if he’s clumsier at it.

If ‘Challengers’ has a flaw, it’s that the rest of the characters more or less disappear into the background. We meet Tashi and Art’s daughter – who seems like an inconvenience more than anything else – and Tashi’s mother, but they’re barely in the mix. There are really just three people in this movie, but they’re enough to carry it for its (slightly overlong) running time.

Final Thoughts

Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s 'Challengers,' an Amazon MGM Studios film.

(L to R) Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s 'Challengers,' an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A crowd-pleaser, a sports movie, a romantic drama, and an arty character study all at the same time, ‘Challengers’ finds director Luca Guadagnino putting aside the more esoteric pretensions of his recent genre output while still making a movie that is intensely adult, sensual, and immersive. Justin Kuritzkes’ script, the insistent Reznor/Ross score, and the award-caliber work by his three leads all help make ‘Challengers’ a winner whether tennis is your game or not.

‘Challengers’ receives 9 out of 10 stars.

Challengers

"Her game. Her rules."
73
R2 hr 12 minApr 26th, 2024
Showtimes & Tickets

What is the plot of ‘Challengers’?

Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) are college tennis players with dreams of turning pro who both unexpectedly fall for fellow player Tashi (Zendaya). Patrick ends up dating her, but as their careers take different paths, it’s Art and Tashi who eventually get married. Yet Tashi’s plan to snap Art out of a losing streak and get him to the U.S. Open are disrupted by the return of Patrick, as tensions sexual and otherwise run high.

Who is in the cast of ‘Challengers’?

Zendaya as Tashi in 'Challengers,' directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Zendaya as Tashi in 'Challengers,' directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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