‘Challengers’ review: Zendaya’s titillating tennis drama is one of the year’s best movies

‘Challengers’ review: Zendaya’s titillating tennis drama is one of the year’s best movies

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) serves up a peachy cocktail of tennis, complex personal relationships and psychological warfare with his latest film Challengers, which is finally receiving a belated release after having been pulled from the 2023 schedules due to the writers’ strike. Playful, sexy and compelling, this is one of the best films of the year, with sensational performances from its three leads.

Zendaya stars as Tashi Duncan, a driven former tennis prodigy turned coach, whose champion husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) has hit something of a losing streak. To boost his confidence before the US Open, Tashi enters him in a low-key Challenger tournament, but her plan hits a snag when Art has to play against his former best friend – and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend – Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), whose life and tennis career have not worked out as planned.

The script, by playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, is brilliantly structured, opening with the Challenger tournament before flashing back to revealing how the characters first met as teenagers, then slowly drip-feeding details of their lives in the intervening years. To that end, the screenplay unfolds like a tennis match in itself, with our sympathies frequently switching back and forth between the players as each seeks to gain the upper hand, both on and off the court.

Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

What emerges is a fascinatingly complex and messy central relationship that evolves from being delightfully playful (as in the heavily trailed sequence where all three characters make out together) to unbearably tense, not least because the script refuses to pick a side in terms of who to root for, making all three leads intriguingly flawed.

Throughout the film, there’s a palpable feeling of Guadagnino really enjoying himself, whether it’s finding original ways to spice up the tennis scenes (such as seemingly attaching a camera to a tennis ball during the rallies) or having fun with the romantic moments. The way the aforementioned threesome sequence plays out, for example, is a delicious tease, capped with a note-perfect facial expression from one of the characters.

The performances are exceptional, with off-the-scale chemistry between all three leads. Zendaya, in particular, is a force of nature, and you feel her angry frustration at her own career path (which was cut short by injury) in every scene. O’Connor and Faist are equally good, and if the film has a flaw, it’s only that it doesn’t explicitly dig deeper into their feelings for each other, leaving it as an underlying suggestion instead.

Josh O’Connor as washed-up tennis player Patrick Zweig. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

The film is beautifully shot throughout, courtesy of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s sun-drenched cinematography, and extra praise should go to whoever in the make-up department was responsible for the perspiration, since this is easily one of the sweatiest movies ever made.

The icing on an already delicious cake is the superb, pulse-pounding synth score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which Guadagnino deploys in interesting ways – not just in the tennis match sequences, but also frequently having it start up in the middle of a dialogue scene to further underscore the tension. In short, this is game, set and match Guadagnino. Well played.


Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor
Release date: April 26 (in cinemas)

The post ‘Challengers’ review: Zendaya’s titillating tennis drama is one of the year’s best movies appeared first on NME.

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