'Challengers' review: Zendaya is a true movie star 2
A scene from 'Challengers.' Warner Bros.

'Challengers' review: Zendaya is a true movie star

Celebrated Italian director Luca Guadagnino shot his tennis scenes with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in a unique exciting style.
Fred Hawson | May 05 2024


At a 2019 Challenger event in New Rochelle, tennis champ Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and his long-estranged friend Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) meet each other at the finals match. Watching them from the front row was Art's wife and coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya).  At this point, Art was just a US Open short of a career Grand Slam, but he had been on a post-injury slump lately. Tashi thought winning this minor tournament would boost his confidence. 

Back in 2006, when Art and Josh were still teenagers, they won the junior doubles title at the US Open. When they met rising female star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), both of them got enamored with her. They succeeded to convince her to visit them at their dorm room for some intimate chitchat among other things. However when they asked Tashi for her phone number, she said that she would only give it to the boy who will win his match the next day. 

This dark romance-sports comedy is the first feature film script by Justin Kuritzkes, then only known for his viral 2011 YouTube video called "Potion Seller." The script tackles the relationships between friends and lovers in the competitive world of professional tennis. While the main story would seem to be the love triangle, and there were plenty of steamy hetero sex scenes, but there was a generous gay subtext all over it. 

It was brought to the big screen by celebrated Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose 2017 film "Call Me By Your Name" was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. The gay theme here may not as overt as it was in "Call," but Guadagnino was more than just suggestive about it. The sexual tension was obviously there between the boys, and Guadagnino knew how to build it up and pile it on, even if it made his straight audience squirm. 

Guadagnino shot his tennis scenes with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in a unique exciting style, as if the viewer himself was serving and hitting the ball. Coupled with the percolating score by Reznor and Ross, this made for a thrilling viewing experience. The nonlinear telling of the story may be confusing at times, but they served well Guadagnino's intention to reveal details of their story with a sense of surprise.

Zendaya is a true movie star, and she can really command the screen when she's on. It may not always be convincing that her character Tashi had really aged. Mike Faist was clean-cut and earnest as the golden boy Art, while Josh O'Connor (who won an Emmy for playing a detestable young Prince Charles in "The Crown" Season 4) was appropriately scruffy and roguish as the bad egg Patrick, in perfect contrast.