Zendaya owns the court in tennis drama ‘Challengers’

Zendaya owns the court in tennis drama ‘Challengers’

Mike Faist and Zendaya in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The plethora of sports films would take up pages, if not volumes. From comedies (Bull Durham, A League of Their Own) to dramas (Rocky, The Boys in the Boat) to the better left undefined (Space Jam?), cinema has often trained its eye on everything from football (Friday Night Lights) to curling (Men with Brooms). While not as popular as baseball or football, tennis is featured in films such as King Richard, Borg vs. McEnroe, 7 Days in Hell, Wimbledon, and even the thriller Match Point. 

Zendaya plays tennis star Tashi Duncan in ‘Challengers’. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Challengers presents doubles partners and best friends Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). After a bold win, they meet superstar Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). All are high school seniors on the cusp of entering college, though Tashi has the skills and ferocity to skip the university level for a professional career. The boys are immediately smitten with the independent Tashi and vie for her affection. Tashi and Art attend Stanford and play college tennis. Patrick turns professional, carrying on a fractious long-distance relationship with Tashi. Early on, Tashi suffers a knee injury, ending her career. She shifts her focus and becomes Art’s coach and then wife.

Challengers is a lust triangle that zig-zags through thirteen years. Beginning in the present of 2019, the film flashes backward and forward through time. Sometimes, the narrative returns to the beginning and sometimes to just a few days prior. Unobtrusive but necessary title cards clarify the time frame, removing the guesswork. Given the short time span and the aging of late teens to early thirties, it would have been almost impossible to follow without them. Notwithstanding changes in hairstyle and facial hair, the outward changes to the characters are minor.

Director Luca Guadagnino is known for his bold style and surprising choices. His most popular film, Call Me by Your Name, garnered numerous accolades, with substantial nominations and awards. His other films have included the violent remake of the horror film Suspiria and the “cannibal love story” Bones and All. He does not shy away from crossing lines or making an impact. 

Josh O’Connor and Zendaya in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Strangely, with Challengers, he seems to pull his punches. Justin Kuritzkes’ functional screenplay is at its best when it draws on the similarities between sex and tennis. Perhaps intentionally, it makes the latter far more exciting and passionate. Challengers takes a benign stab at privilege with Art and Patrick as boarding school boys who have been roommates since they were twelve. Later, Patrick tries to put himself forward as the starving athlete living in his car. Tashi calls him out on the façade. This provides one of the few references to the nature of their indulgence and her place as an outsider. Much has been made of the trailer’s indication of another layer to the menage, but the film skirts around this, with nods towards the homoerotic but never fully embracing it. 

Where the film succeeds is in the three central performances (no one else gets much of a look in). Faist makes the sweeter, more conservative Art as likable as possible, showing an easy but often brittle charm. O’Connor gives Patrick a certain amount of doubt and introspection, even when his behavior is terrible. The sense that he is always on the edge softens an otherwise narcissistic individual. 

But Zendaya owns the film, bringing raw energy to the femme fatale struggling with her constantly shifting and mixed feelings about these two man-children. She balances an electric presence with unspoken frustrations and even simmering rage. She makes every moment, every beat count. She is both queen and pawn. Is she a homewrecker or a victim? 

As a tight ensemble, the trio owns the shifting dynamics, which are interesting and intense as they try but fail to define themselves. The repetitions and changing of partners create a sort of interpersonal hell where, ultimately, none are winners. Rages lead to broken rackets; disappointments lead to double-crossing. 

The tennis is filmed with energy and style, bringing as much excitement and edge to the game. Even the peripatetic timeline enhances the somewhat predictable plot. But where the film frustrates is its overuse of slow motion and a heavy-handed, pulsing soundtrack, adding minutes that become endless. Dwelling on predictable cuts, sweaty faces, hard stares, and triumphant grimaces eventually feels like a parody. 

Judicious editing, trimming to a lean ninety minutes, would have made the film a winner. However, Challengers at two hours and eleven minutes is just challenging.

Rated R, Challengers is now playing in local theaters.