Film

Challengers review – Zendaya stars in an absurdly compelling three-way love match

Three's a crowd in this movie triangle, which comes to a head on the tennis court

Zendaya and Mike Faist in Challengers

Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers. Image: Niko Tavernise

Would it work if it was Subbuteo? That was a question that bubbled up in my mind even as I was being happily swept along by the ravishing new film from Italian sensualist Luca Guadagnino, the acclaimed director who pierced both hearts and peaches with Call Me by Your Name and turned ballet into a bloodsport in his Suspiria  horror remake.  His latest big swing Challengers is set in the sharp-elbowed world of professional tennis and tracks the fluctuating urges between a trio of very fit young players.

Much is made of the primal energies being exerted on the court with every supersonic serve and grunting return. But a lot of the most erotic sizzle happens away from the net. So would it be just as effective if the brilliant Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor were three Subbuteo fanatics falling in lust and love while trying to make their mark on the finger-flicking sport of kings? 

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Judging by the reaction Challengers has already received, Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes likely made the right choice sticking with tennis. Even non-sports fans are aware of the ambition required to succeed and the lucrative status that comes as the reward. But the pivotal match in the film does not take place at Wimbledon or the US Open but at a second-string qualifying tournament outside New York in 2019.  

Competing in this seemingly trivial final are well-established ATP tour pro Art (Faist) and journeyman player Patrick (O’Connor), former tennis boarding school brothers-in-arms. Their fervent friendship short-circuited after they both fell for rising smasher Tashi (Zendaya) over a decade ago. While Tashi – long retired, and now Art’s wife – watches on from the crowd, the film jumps backward to relive their formative encounters, each one ratcheting up the stakes when the action returns to the increasingly sweaty match in progress.  

If the 2019 versions of the men seem a little wrung out – Art is stuck in a losing spiral; Patrick is broke – their teen incarnations are a riot of hormones and adolescent horseplay. When they see Tashi demolishing an opponent with her ferocious backhand, they are immediately and hopelessly lovestruck. In turn, she is curious about their unsubtle infatuation and unusually close relationship.  

A brief but hot and heavy hotel room hangout between the three – a sort of Grand Slam Y Tu Mama Tambien – puts the boys in literal competition. By her decree, whoever wins their next clash on the court gets Tashi’s number. 

Tennis works best as a game for two, so what happens when there are three players? Things get messy. The powerful, confident Patrick dates Tashi in the first instance but the sidelined Art still has some subtle shots to play from the friend zone. In the early running, Tashi is the only one who seems like an actual grown-up – while the boys come from money, she has had to fight her way into pro tennis and seems totally focused on dominating it. 

It is an incredible showcase for Zendaya, who gets the best lines and the best wardrobe (and a prominent producer credit). Faist was previously as dazzling and dangerous as a cut-throat razor in West Side Story but seems convincingly unmoored and vulnerable as Art. With his jug ears and washboard abs, O’Connor is a one-man skiffle band coasting on wolfish, Casanova charm – although if he was actually serious about mounting a late-career resurgence, he should probably give up smoking. 

Once you settle into the serve-and-return of the time-jump structure it becomes an absurdly compelling relationship drama. Despite the attractiveness of the leads, there are no other romantic interests, which sort of makes sense – having lived their lives through tennis, who else would really understand? – while also intensifying the stakes. When voices are raised, the pulsing house-inflected soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also ramps up, which turns every emotional squabble into an airhorn-ready warehouse rave. 

You are left to wonder: which permutation is the right one? Should Tashi be with Patrick? Should Patrick be with Art? Should they just love all? As the final match escalates, the camera gets deliberately more
chaotic, switching from relatively sedate wide shots of the court to the lurching point-of-view of the striving players. Finally it becomes the ball itself, spinning crazily between Art and Patrick. It is disquieting and feels dangerous but exhilarating, much like the film itself. Wimbledon this year might end up feeling a little humdrum. 

Challengers is in cinemas from 26 April.

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