Zendaya can’t put a foot wrong right now. This spring, she’s already vaulted into the peak of cinematic excellence with her work in Dune: Part 2. Now barely two months later, she’s teaming with Luca Guadagnino, a director riding the peak of his artistic powers for the film Challengers. Will the relationship drama set within the tennis world win the match point? Or will this one barely clear the net? Read on.  

Challengers follows the story of a trio of young tennis players as they struggle with life, love and above all… tennis. The film spotlights not only their rich and complex relationships with each other but also the only bond that truly matters, the one they share with the sport. This is a love story where tennis is the main character.  Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor co-star in the movie. Guadagnino directs Challengers from a script by Justin Kuritzkes. 

Zendaya sits across from Josh O'Connor in front of a dark window. They touch each other tenderly Luca Guadagnino's Challengers.

Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It seems, with Challengers, what we’ve long expected is officially true. Zendaya has reached movie star status. Throughout the film her sheer command of the screen is a captivating thing to watch. Truthfully, she is not the focus of the narrative this time around. Rather, the brunt of the plot revolves around Faist and O’Connor. Zendaya, however, controls this movie. The camera loves her. She’s magnetic. As such, she’s the one who’s going to be putting butts in seats. 

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Unfortunately, though, this is at the root of the biggest potential struggle watching Challengers. People want to see more Zendaya. She’s at the center of the movie’s marketing. Yet as mentioned, Tashi (Zandaya) is not the film’s focus. In truth, she’s only a supporting player in Art (Faist) and Patrick’s (O’Connor) story. This isn’t to say she’s not in much of the movie. This is far from the case. She is though, less of an active participant. Often, she’s watching the action happen around her. Art and Patrick are competing for her attention. 

With that being said, Guadagnino is utterly fascinated by the complicated relationships at play here. To put things a bit more bluntly, Challengers is super horny. While there is certainly a focus on the relationship between the two boys and Tashi, the film refuses to shy away from the nature of Patrick and Art’s close personal relationship. In fact, it could be argued thieir bond is actually the one the film is most interested in. The script (and with that) Guadagnino isn’t shy about examining the love between the two men. This is far from a subtle film. Challengers doesn’t understand subtlety… and this isn’t a bad thing. 

Zendaya stands across from Josh O'Connor as she's bathed in the light of a nearby car in Luca Guadagnino's Challengers.

Zendaya as Tashi in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Luca Guadagnino injects an “in-you-face” charm to Challengers that will either soar or fall flat with many viewers. There’s a blend of visual elements and a techy Trent Reznor score making the movie feel distinctly 1980s. Challengers isn’t set in the 1980s, but it desperately wants to conjure the decade in an unapologetically quirky way and I for one, am here for it.

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At the same time, Guadagnino and his team are having a heck of a lot of visual fun this time around. They’re loose, they’re in the mood to experiment and they are basking in the joy of experimentation. As an example, the director makes a fascinating use of perspective throughout the story. This is most pronounced in the tennis sequences. Have you ever imagined viewing a tennis match from the perspective of the ball? Just wait. It happens deep in the second act. It is as kooky as it sounds.

All in all, Luca Guadagnino continues to be a fascinating filmmaker with so much to say. With his latest film, Challengers, the versatile director is in the mood to have some fun. This movie somehow manages to make tennis thirsty, quirky and above all else, delightful. This is a bold and brash relationship dramedy that yearns for the style of the 1980s. There are plenty who this won’t work for, but it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater so far this year. Check it out. 

Challengers opens theatrically April 26, 2024. 

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This review was originally published on 4/12/24.

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Kimberly Pierce
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