Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Minor spoilers ahead

Luca Guadagnino’s star-studded sports drama “Challengers” entered theaters on April 22, 2024, and audiences are still recovering from the 131 minutes of friendship, tension and steamy heartbreak. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you wanting more, more, more. 

Zendaya leads as casually cruel Tashi Duncan, a tennis prodigy whose career-ending injury turns her into a depraved coach to her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a down on his luck major tournament champ. In an attempt to secure him his first U.S. Open win, Tashi and Art take on a Challenger — a low-stakes, uncomplicated tournament to get Art back in the game. However, things get obscenely more complicated when Art’s ex-best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), is also in the draw. 

The intricate storytelling in “Challengers” is a testament to the work of screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes and director Guadagnino. The film takes the audience to the present — Phil’s Tire Town Challenger Final between Donaldson and Zweig — before jumping along the 13-year stretch since Art and Patrick met Tashi. The story is expertly crafted, with flashbacks to the younger storyline, building tension as the final match lurches between Patrick and Art, the upper hand always out of reach. Patrick wins the first set while the audience watches his volatile relationship with Tashi. Art asserts his dominance in the second set as he seduces Tashi in an Applebee’s parking lot. 

But perhaps the most interesting relationship of the torrid triangle is the relationship between Art and Patrick. Art and Patrick were roommates, junior doubles partners and the best of friends in their adolescence. In the beginning of the film, the intense stares across the court seem to be a display of rage, but as the game unfolds, the audience is brought into this unspoken intimacy between the partners. They embody a common theme in Guadagnino’s filmography, a sense of unending homoerotic desire. Despite what the trailer may have implied, the “threesome” scene is less three hot people getting it on and more Tashi trying to get the two to act on their repressed feelings. 

The teasing play from Tashi is just the first in a set of erratic moves — it sets the tone for her character. Viewers often find themselves trying to predict her next step without success. In her youth, Tashi’s unpredictability is coy but carefree, almost playful, like the aforementioned “threesome” scene. But injury and age give her actions a sharper edge, like when she begs Patrick to throw the Challengers match before having sex with him in the backseat. Her resentful indifference toward her husband and deep-seated anger at the world make her feel like an evil puppet master stringing along two lads for the fun of it. However, the audience gets the sense that she’s more conflicted than she’s letting on, due in part to the costuming work of Jonathan Anderson.  

First-time costumer and creative director of Loewe, Anderson’s costumes are rife with innuendo. From the Juicy Couture zip-up Tashi dons in the hotel room to her match dress, every piece is incredibly intentional. The pink velour sweater begs to be unzipped, the Juicy label emblematic of the stereotypical Y2K hot girl. Her match dress, a personal favorite, has asymmetrical collars and a knot at the waist, representing her character’s discordance and the figurative knot in her stomach as she watches the match play out. Similarly, Tashi’s jewelry is a mix of silver and gold, a singular beaded bracelet (ostensibly a gift from her daughter) creates a smorgasbord of incongruity. The signature “I told ya” shirt, shared by Tashi and Patrick throughout the film, is a reference to John F. Kennedy Jr., who was papped in the shirt in the ‘80s. The slogan is a callback to his father’s campaign buttons which read, “I told you so.” The shirt is a cheeky joke, poking fun at Patrick and Tashi’s mutual dissatisfaction with their lives and careers, while also being a distinct change from the rest of the movie’s preppy wardrobe. 

Costuming aside, the thesis of the movie is captured through the dancey, techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s tense and enticing, with synth thumping reminiscent of one’s own heartbeat and a fast-paced, running soundscape that ups the ante. Each track is layered with club-like electronic beats, verbal cues like “Yeah x10” and even sound effects like an iPhone alarm in the opening theme. Some tracks appear to take things a bit slower, like “L’oeuf,” which plays on the beach when Tashi, Art and Patrick talk about their deep connections to tennis. Despite being accompanied by a soothing piano, “L’oeuf” introduces an almost static buzzing noise that slowly raises the stakes throughout the song, further displaying the intensity of the moment and the excellence of Reznor and Ross’ score. 

But perhaps what completes the movie’s technical elements is Guadagnino’s inventive cinematography. Though the flashback scenes are more conventionally filmed, the Challenger match puts viewers into the game quite literally. There is an epic, albeit dizzying, point-of-view shot in which the viewers become the tennis ball, hurtling back and forth between Art and Patrick as they grunt and sweat voraciously. There’s a brilliant moment in which Guadagnino plays into the audience’s expectations of him, the camera on Faist as O’Connor leans into the frame and takes a big bite from a half-peeled banana. Subtlety is rarely Guadagnino’s style. 

Tennis, historically prestigious and a self-described “gentlemen’s sport,” is the perfect space for three morally flawed, messy characters to fall apart. 

Though “Challengers” excels on the technical side, it would be nothing without the stellar performances of its three main performers. The sheer power of Faist and O’Connor’s chemistry would be enough to save any movie, and that’s saying nothing of Zendaya’s illustrious draw. Somehow, “Challengers” is Zendaya’s first leading role in a movie, despite her acclaimed filmography and a long list of leading television roles. There was hardly a doubt that she would deliver a strong performance, but Zendaya excels as the multi-faceted Tashi, showcasing a ferocity we have rarely seen from her. She’s the picture of an effervescent youth in the earlier timeline and a hardened dictator in the present. Zendaya plays her with meticulous care, showing the world that she can venture outside of the high school realm in full bloom. 

Faist steps out of the Broadway baby image to play the beautifully pathetic Art. Art is flailing in the present timeline, stuck in a loveless marriage and a thankless career. He takes no real action in the present, other than asking Tashi if she’ll divorce him if he loses to Patrick (the answer is yes). In the flashbacks, however, Art is endearing and kind. He’s the rational half of O’Connor’s Patrick, a reckless teen in the past and later a burnt-out adult with the same prepubescent mentality. Patrick is a different kind of pathetic, a guy who sleeps in his car even though he comes from large sums of money. Together, Art and Patrick have a balance that neither one of them could achieve with Tashi. Their insane chemistry manifests in the churro scene, which can’t be accurately described in mere words, so I’ll let you look that one up. The scenes between the three of them are tennis matches of their own, each competing to steal the scene in their own way. The best sequence is undoubtedly the dialogue before the “threesome,” with the attraction between Patrick and Art glaringly apparent to both the audience and Tashi. It’s funny, it’s suggestive and it’s a testament to the practice of chemistry reads. 

Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tennis, historically prestigious and a self-described “gentlemen’s sport,” is the perfect space for three morally flawed, messy characters to fall apart. Steeped in tradition, tennis has always been a sport for the affluent, the buttoned-up and old-money individuals. Players are required to wear all white at Wimbledon, patrons eat strawberries and cream, drink fancy cocktails, carry parasols and treat the grounds like a runway — stadiums filled to the brim with fans must be completely silent when a player is serving at any major tournament. It’s prim, it’s proper and yet, the sport itself is messy. 

Like Tashi, tennis is ruthless. The most revered tournaments are single-elimination — there are no second chances. And perhaps unlike any other sport, the tides can turn in an instant. No matter how great a player is, even those deemed “world-class” can fall to a mediocre player with momentum on their side. The sport is also the scene of some of the most dramatic sports moments — with players screaming at the teenage ball crews, destroying racquets in the most creative ways and verbally abusing umpires. Not only that, tennis is sexy. It’s chock full of sweaty, grunting, scantily clad individuals. Even when every convention and rule says that it shouldn’t, tennis emanates passion. 

“Challengers” capitalizes on the juxtaposition of pedigree and drama in tennis, and its excellence proves that the world is in desperate need of more tennis movies. Teeming with sex, serves and synth, Guadagnino and his team of creatives landed a grand slam, creating what may very well be the best movie of the year.