Friday, April 12, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

Tennis, you see, is a lot like sex.

“I’m not here to fuck you,” Tashi (Zendaya) tells a smirking Patrick (Josh O’Connor) from the passenger seat of his busted-down sedan. He’d be forgiven for making that assumption, as their clandestine meeting has all the hallmarks of a lovers’ rendezvous: It’s after midnight. Tashi snuck out of the hotel suite she’s sharing with her husband (Mike Faist as Art) and daughter to be there. She and Patrick are exes, but the fires, well, they’re still burning brightly enough that he can see through Tashi’s subterfuge. She is absolutely, unequivocally, 100% there to fuck him. But why? Patrick is a failed prospect who never met his potential on the pro tennis circuit, while Tashi — herself a college prodigy whose career was brought to an end by a devastating injury — is married to one of the premiere talents in all athletics. She’s also his manager, the real brains behind an operation that transcends one admittedly niche sport and makes them two of the most powerful figures in popular culture. So why? Why risk it all for some empty tryst? Because she needs Patrick, and so does her husband.
Such is the crux of Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, the closest thing to an erotic thriller offered to mainstream audiences — especially young ones — in a good long while. The story begins in college, where best friends and tennis academy roommates Art and Patrick meet Tashi Duncan, Adidas’ Next Big Thing. She’s charmed by the boys’ vying for her attention — Art’s awkward and eager while Patrick plays the cad — but more enticingly, she senses the electric chemistry that permeates between them. She immediately sets about testing the boys, teasing out their unspoken boundaries and their willingness to backstab each other for a shot at her exclusive company. But while trailers advertise a torrid love triangle, Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes are actually staging a three-ring circus with Tashi as the cunning ringleader. Challengers parallels storylines between the boys’ subsequent falling out and the match that reunites them many years later, resulting in a sleek and bombastic romp coated in a generous layer of camp humor.

And while the prospect of seeing former Disney star Zendaya make the quantum leap into adult thrillers may pack the theaters on opening weekend, it’s that humor that will keep Challengers’ audiences in their seats. Art and Patrick are ludicrously codependent from the very first frames, and Guadagnino tasks regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom with finding the most compromising possible angles from which to film their — allegedly inadvertent — courtship. Sweat pours over their competition scenes, while playful boner slaps and ostentatious banana consumption make their flirtation all but explicit. Guadagnino is having quite a bit of fun here, but it’s Feist and O’Connor who sell it in brash superscript, with O’Connor, especially, poised to become one of cinema’s premiere hot dirtbags. He’s the yin to Mike Feist’s beta cuck yang, the latter playing thirty-something Art as a posh and insecure former champion growing soft with celebrity. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score thumps along, churning up their tete-a-tete as it grows more intense.
But again, no one could possibly pretend that Zendaya — now a firmly-established box-office draw after Dune: Part Two’s encouraging success — isn’t the one who will open this picture. The twenty-seven-year-old actress makes the most of her first true opportunity to set aside her child star image, giving Tashi an acerbic, angular grace befitting a much older woman. It’s a good performance that, through no fault of her own, perhaps just barely fails to overcome her still-youthful appearance. But then, the high school play of it all feels of a piece with the tonal games Guadagnino is playing with Challengers, especially with Tashi. Her clothes, hair, and lavish lifestyle (not to mention a daughter played by Birth/Rebirth star A.J. Lister) appear to be firm compensation for a career cut short, but she’s still seething with helpless rage, angry at these boys — “My white boys,” she jokes — for squandering opportunities no longer available to her. She’s playing games with them. Children’s games. It only makes sense, then, that she should appear a bit childish herself.
Challengers’ ultimate legacy feels likely to be shaped by Tik Tok and Instagram, where other queer thrillers like Saltburn — dreadful though it may be — found unlikely audiences through sheer force of meme alone. It’s hard to predict if Guadagnino’s particular sense of humor will connect with a generation already uneasy with cavalier depictions of sex in cinema, and it’s just as likely that the film’s lack of skin — a quick shower dong aside, nothing on screen goes beyond the PG-13 level — will prevent genre-savvy crowds from choosing it over superior indie offerings like Love Lies Bleeding. Regardless, Challengers is another strong entry in one of our most idiosyncratic filmographies, a confident exercise in trashy, self-indulgent melodrama from a modern master of the form. It signals the beginning of Zendaya’s second era (era) which, if her reputation as a Gen Z’s taste-maker to beat is any indication, will help evolve opportunities and expectations for cinema’s “leading ladies.” The New New Hollywood is here, folks, and Challengers is leading the charge.

Challengers is in theaters on Friday, April 26th.

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