‘Challengers’ is an Enticing, Matchmaking Match-Up

For tennis, love means zero. But for “Challengers,” it means triumph.

“Challengers” is a sensual drama serving up compulsion and desire.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, “Challengers” details the 13-year love triangle between enamored tennis players as their skills progress and relationships strain.

Childhood friends now in their early 30s, Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig meet for a low-stakes challenger match with a cash prize. In an effort to revitalize their extinguishing careers, tensions run high as the two struggle to prove their self-worth and earn the affection of prodigy Tashi Duncan, played by Zendaya.

As the match unfolds, Art and Patrick reminisce on their friendship and the passionate night that launched their rivalry years prior.

Tennis acts as an allegory for desperation and obsession, a direct comparison to intimacy for its stirring interplay between competitors. Each character ties their personal worth to their performance, mirroring the likes of “Black Swan” and “Whiplash” with intense dedication to the craft.

The magnetic interplay between Tashi, Art and Patrick distorts through time and heartbreak. The three actors are shockingly convincing while playing their characters from high school to early adulthood. Their performances shift from youthful confidence to mature anxiety with a constant hunger for success brewing beneath each portrayal.

Mike Faist radiates charm as Art, growing from a boyish newcomer to a pro past his prime. Faist (“West Side Story,” “The Bikeriders”) manipulates Art’s innocent loyalty towards Tashi and Patrick into snobbish self-importance with his adulthood success.

In contrast, Josh O’Connor slyly appeals as a crass wunderkind-turned-tennis burnout. O’Connor (“Emma,” “The Crown”) plays an overconfident flirt, swiftly humbled by peaking early in his career.

Both desperately seek one last shot to win a professional tournament. However, the opportunity to settle which of them is worthy of Tashi’s companionship proves more important than a title victory.

A driven figure motivated by perfection, Zendaya (“Dune: Part Two,” “Euphoria”) subverts love triangle tropes as Tashi, an enchantress imbued with autonomy. Her relationships with the two are consistently secondary to her ambitions. For Tashi, romance is the game — not tennis.

Direction from Guadagnino (“Bones and All,” “Call Me by Your Name”) makes the matches as captivating to witness as they are passionately described by Tashi.

Swift pans and intense close-ups emit a concentrated rage from the court and its players. Vivid camera movement parallels an action film more than a sports feature. Guadagnino’s inventive direction embodies first-person points of view for Art, Patrick and the ball itself. 

Breaks in the challenger match display a biting fierceness. Muscles flexing in slow motion and sweat beads falling onto the court evoke powerful, intimate imagery. The salacious atmosphere places the audience in the same intoxicated headspace as the characters. The game is hardly competitive, but the stakes feel momentaneously personal.

The only thing interrupting the immersion is the ironically blatant product placement. The pro-athlete characters unsubtly receive name brand athletic-wear. Where the promotions get overzealous is in their constant frontness towards the camera.

It’s a mostly inoffensive hiccup to an otherwise engrossing experience. Oddly enough, brazen advertising mimics the fake and forced smiles applied by the film’s disingenuous characters.

“Challengers” is a riveting depiction of fixation paired with romance. Obsession over lust, success and pride is given voice through two rackets, a court and a tennis ball. Each character’s faults and ambitions are deepened by a provocative cast. 

For tennis, love means zero. But for “Challengers,” it means triumph.

“Challengers,” rated R, comes to theaters April 26.

“Up to Parr” is writer Brendan Parr’s recurring movie review column.

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr