Challengers review – everything is sex, except sex, which is power

Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Luca Guadagnino


Josh O’Connor Mike Faist Zendaya


Knocking a point off because I have no interest in tennis.


...But I’m very interested in Josh O’Connor’s tennis shorts.

In Retrospect.

What a fun, sexy time for you.

Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist play a trio of tennis players whose lives are inextricably connected in a complicated love triangle.

“Everything is sex / except sex / which is power,” sang renaissance woman Janelle Monáe is her ridiculously catchy 2018 banger ‘Screwed’. It’s a sentiment echoed across the filmography of Italian provocateur Luca Guadagnino, who’s no slouch when it comes to a bit of titillation – ever since Tilda Swinton put on that little red dress in I Am Love, it’s been written in the stars. He is drawn to stories about fucking and fucking up, and Justin Kuritzkes’ script for Challengers offers something to satisfy both those appetites, pitting two tennis players against each other in a match that’s as much for love as it is for honour.

Watching from the stands is Tashi (Zendaya), a steely former teen prodigy whose career was bitterly curtailed by a knee injury before she got the chance to go pro. Her devoted but despondent husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), is faltering on his way to the US Open – to boost his confidence and get some practice hours in, Tashi enters him into a tiny ‘Challengers’ tournament in upstate New York. Unranked players, inconsequential prize money. It’ll be a cakewalk, she assures him, with the same confidence that has propelled him to the top under her careful coaching and management.

What Tashi doesn’t account for is the presence of Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a fantastically charismatic, fantastically washed-up star, slumming it in regional tournaments for prize money scraps rather than go home to his wealthy parents with his tail between his legs. He also happens to be Tashi’s ex and Art’s former best friend (those two things may be connected). Suddenly there’s more at stake than the Mike’s Tire Town Championship, and the trio’s tangled lives unravel in stolen snippets across decades and cities. An unforgettable night at the US Junior Open when they’re on the cusp of adulthood becomes a lifelong entanglement – and it’s not always clear who’s holding onto who.

This is the sort of barbed character study that Gudagnino has turned into a fine art throughout his career, delighting in the ways humans are consistently but uniquely callous to one another. The central love triangle is fuelled by its human components, who are stubborn and reckless and desperate in their own ways, and to varying degrees of awareness. Their failures aren’t unique, but how they manifest are, and particularly for Tashi, self-sabotage seems to be a side-effect of never being able to get enough of whatever it is she wants.

It’s easy to see what drew Zendaya to the role, and to the film as a producer. This is a woman who has taken a lot of shit to get to where she is, and ultimately is still forced to exist within the shadow of a man, no matter how much she loves him. And no matter how much he loves her. Because Art is crazy about his wife, and would do anything to make her happy.

The thing is, Tashi isn’t so sure she wants to be happy. Good tennis isn’t happy. Tashi wants a fight. She wants to be the best. She wants to have the world that was denied her when she was forced out of her dream before it was even within striking distance. Patrick reminds her of that fire: he’s cocksure and arch and selfish, but he’s talented and perceptive. The way that he sees Tashi couldn’t be more different from the way her husband sees her.

And then there’s how Art and Patrick see each other: childhood best friends and doubles partners turned love rivals. There’s a simmering current of sexual tension between them, and the will they/won’t they of it all is classic rom-com territory (case in point: an unexpectedly pointed scene involving churros in a college cafeteria).

But too posh and petty to talk about any of their long history, the boys sweat it out on the court (and in the sauna). Tennis becomes an electronic ballet under the thumping Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, with the spectators moving in a carefully choreographed rhythm with each THWACK of the ball. There’s some nifty camerawork too, with lenses attached to balls and nets so we move with the action rather than at a remove.

The sparing use of this cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is for the best though. It might get a bit nauseating if the All England Club takes the idea on board for entire matches. Although some of the other visual language is a little more, ahem, pointed, it’s hard to criticise a film as playful as Challengers for being obvious.

And that’s the thing: the film is fun. It’s smart and sexy and engaging, from the whip-smart dialogue and Jonathan Anderson’s playful costuming (Tiny shorts! Oversized, period-appropriate hideous polo shirts! An ‘I TOLD YA’ shirt as famously worn by JFK Jr!) down to the note-perfect supporting actors Darnell Appling (who is also Zendaya’s long-time assistant) and Joan Mcshane.

When it comes to the main cast, Zendaya’s star power is thermonuclear. Tashi is in total control, even when she’s stumbling, and Faist undercuts his sweet, safe energy with an aura of manipulative promise. But it’s Josh O’Connor who emerges as MVP – a swaggering, sweaty lothario. The sort of man who would merrily ruin your life… possibly more than once.

It’s something new for him in a strong year (he could not be a more different shambling ruin in Alice Rohrwacher’s stunning La Chimera) and it’s easy to see why he’s the odds-on favourite to star in Guadagnino’s next film as well. He’s a tremendously charismatic screen presence, lithe and louche as he prowls around like a particularly confident alleycat.

Despite Kuritzkes’ avowed interest in tennis (and Guadagnino’s lack thereof), the game is a cypher, of course. While the dedication, discipline and perseverance that the sport requires factor into Challengers, the intricacies of the sport hardly really matter (beyond understanding Patrick and Art are playing for more than just a novelty cheque).

Perhaps it’s the combination of Kuritzkes’ interest in and Guadagnino’s ambivalence towards the sport which provides a sense of balance. During a conversation with Patrick, Tashi describes tennis as a “relationship between two people” – I can’t help but feel the notion applies to a film too, in the dark cinema congress between director and viewer. Or maybe it’s more like Janelle Monáe sang – everything’s either sex or power. In Challengers, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Published 12 Apr 2024

Tags: Challengers Josh O’Connor Luca Guadagnino Mike Faist Zendaya


Knocking a point off because I have no interest in tennis.


...But I’m very interested in Josh O’Connor’s tennis shorts.

In Retrospect.

What a fun, sexy time for you.

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