Written by Tom Augustine.

It’s probably a disservice to Challengers to describe it as a ‘sexy’ movie. That’s not to say that there isn’t sexual tension here, or incredibly beautiful people on the screen, or even that the film doesn’t telegraph sexiness in its many slow-motion sequences of rippling biceps, sweat drips and gyrating torsos. But Challengers is only about sex incidentally. Indeed, probably the most fascinating directorial decision made in Luca Guadagnino’s latest is to withhold sex scenes. There’s plenty of horny longing and sexual preamble throughout, but the act itself remains interestingly (perhaps even frustratingly) undepicted. One can see an artistic justification for this choice baked into the text, interested as the film is in the transactional nature of relationships, the giving and receiving that mirrors the game at the centre of the drama. Guadagnino is a director known for sensuality and tactility; the press of bodies, the dripping of sweat, the thickness of the atmosphere, it’s all rapturously captured by the Italian auteur with an intoxicating abandon, from A Bigger Splash to Bones and All to the still-great Call Me By Your Name. Watching Challengers, I found myself casting back to those other works, realising sex is frequently hinted at but rarely seen throughout Guadagnino’s work. Instead, other acts of transgression abound, from the infamous peach scene in Call Me By Your Name to Bones and All’s eroticised and sublimated performance of cannibalism. Guadagnino’s films are carnal, passionate, but the act itself remains hidden. There’s a word that better describes Challengers, rather than ‘sexy’ – it’s a passionate film.


It’s a film that also carries the weight of certain expectations – it’s a major mid-budget Hollywood drama, in a time where such a project is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and also a film that aims to propel its star Zendaya to tentpole fame, serving as an indication that she can hold the centre of mature pictures for adult audiences beyond the blockbuster Spider-man and Dune franchises that bear her name in supporting roles. Zendaya has proven her chops before, coming away from the bacchanalia of Euphoria largely unscathed and with an Emmy in hand, but Challengers represents something different. In the film, Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a young, ferociously ambitious tennis player with the talent to match. She is an eclipsing force in the film, a character whose intelligence and stature hold the film’s male co-leads, upcoming tennis players Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist) in her thrall. It’s a role of real complexity, but also one that calls for a certain movie star magnetism that can’t be taught. 

Bolstered by three superb lead performances, Luca Guadagnino’s sweat-soaked tennis drama is his finest work since Call Me By Your Name. Thrillingly directed and cleverly structured, it’s an exhilarating reminder of the value of mature, mid-budget studio filmmaking.

Zendaya is up to the task, particularly when in the company of her equally fantastic co-leads. Challengers is a true three-hander, one that zips back and forth in time to explore the trajectory of an exceptionally tortuous relationship. In a clever feat of scripting (from the husband of Past Lives director Celine Song, Justin Kuritzkes) we first see the three near the end of the story, as now-pro tennis player Art, down on his luck at the end of his career, finds himself slumming it at a ‘challenger’, a small-scale local tennis championship far from the spotlight of the Grand Slams to which he’s accustomed. There, he finds himself face-to-face with Patrick, also down-on-his-luck, the two facing off for the first time after an unspecified falling out from years back. Zendaya’s Tashi watches from the sidelines, before we are propelled back to the early days, where the far-younger three enjoy a flirtatious interplay, as both boys make a play for Tashi’s affections. Guadagnino deftly slips back and forth between these timelines as Tashi’s affections wax and wane between the two. As much as the film is a true feast for Zendaya, it should serve as a star-making vehicle for her co-leads too. O’Connor, excellent in last year’s La Chimera, is a force of nature here, a hedonistic and fearless free-spirit whose overflowing confidence and charisma starts to rot as the years catch up with him. Faist, who stole entire scenes in Spielberg’s West Side Story, plays the straight man, his Art the quieter of the two boys and more prone to doubt and self-sabotage. The great pleasure of Challengers is in watching the three snipe, backstab and supercede each other, wielding their sexualities and the looming presence of the sport that has claimed them like weapons of war.


Perhaps Guadagnino’s most high-profile film yet, it’s a chance for the Italian auteur to let loose, and his direction here is positively exhilarating. Above all, Challengers is enormous fun to watch, a part of that is in delighting in the hilarious, steamy or downright diabolical positions Guadagnino places his actors, and his camera. This is no more apparent than in the film’s gripping tennis sequences, which become emotional battlegrounds for the characters. Tashi lays it out succinctly early in the film – ‘tennis is a relationship’. Guadagnino packs these sequences with every trick in his arsenal. The camera is placed inside the ball, or looking up below the soles of the players’ feet. Extensive sequences of slow-motion ratchet the tension into the stratosphere, as the sundrenched athletes battle like Greek warriors. If one of Guadagnino’s great strengths is tactility, it’s on full display here, where the elements seem to respond to the characters’ emotions (a scene of immense emotional upset for Tashi takes place in the middle of a howling hurricane, as if her longing has whipped the wind up around her). 

Both tennis and sex serve as a means of understanding power dynamics, who is on top at any given moment. Fortunately, Challengers doesn’t need to be erotic cinema’s saviour to be an excellent film. As Guadagnino built toward the film’s gasp-worthy final moments, my audience was positively vibrating in anticipation, grins splayed on our faces. The audacity of Challengers, in this moment, is in its ability to transcend – it’s more than a sports drama, more than a romantic melodrama, more than an erotic thriller. It’s one hell of a game.

Challengers is in cinemas now.



Movie title: Challengers (Guadagnino, 2024)

Movie description: Bolstered by three superb lead performances, Luca Guadagnino’s sweat-soaked tennis drama is his finest work since Call Me By Your Name. Thrillingly directed and cleverly structured, it’s an exhilarating reminder of the value of mature, mid-budget studio filmmaking.

Date published: April 19, 2024

Country: United States

Author: Justin Kuritzke

Director(s): Luca Guadanigno

Actor(s): Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor

Genre: Sport, Romance

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