REVIEW: CHALLENGERS Elevates Zendaya to Movie-Star Status

Moments into Luca Guadagnino’s (Bones and All, Suspiria, Call Me By Your Name) latest film, Challengers, a millennial-focused melodrama fronted by the singularly talented (and named), two-time Emmy award-winning Zendaya, it’s clear Guadagnino, a onetime arthouse auteur turned mainstream aspirant, will convert the film’s central idea/theme, “ball is life” (and vice versa), into a rhapsodic exercise in maximalist bombast and sensorial excess. For Guadagnino and his trio of intertwined lovers, tennis is never just tennis, a one-on-one sport created in Victorian England for its melanin-deficient aristocratic elite: It’s everything. And after 131 sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting minutes following the fortunes of its onscreen trio, moviegoers might just feel the same.

Challengers pivots around Zendaya’s character, Tashi Duncan, an ex-tennis prodigy turned coach, manager, and non-trad wife to the thirty-something Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, West Side Story), a multiple major-winning tennis pro, and Peter Zweig (Josh O’Connor, Chimera), Art’s former boarding school bunkmate and best friend-turned-rival who’s self-destructive nature has turned him into a footnote, as they face the consequences of the life choices on the seemingly unimportant “challenger” match of the title, a second-tier qualifying tennis tournament sponsored by a local tire company.

For Tashi, she’s turned her considerable talents, energy, and focus on Art’s career after her own ended on a tennis court, the result of a catastrophic knee injury. A promising, charismatic star with a junior title to her name, an Adidas endorsement contract, and a college scholarship to Stanford University, Tashi seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of other American greats, only to see the future she imagined for herself disappear forever the moment her knee collapses. As a life beyond or outside tennis seems impossible, Tashi eventually applies herself to coaching, first another women’s tennis player, eventually Art when he hits an early career slump.

Challengers introduces Art and Peter first (and last) on that New Rochelle tennis court, a make-or-break final for both players, before jumping back in time 13 years to their junior pro days as inseparable friends and doubles tennis partners. Neither seems necessarily destined for greater things, though Art’s steadfast dedication and Peter’s exuberant energy seem to complement each other on and off the court. It’s not until Peter, already besotted with teen phenom Tashi, drags a hesitant Art to a match between the stunningly radiant Tashi and an overmatched opponent. Driven by the hormonal changes raging through their teen bodies, Art and Peter all but melt in Tashi’s presence. Not surprisingly, their friendship undergoes radical, permanent change.

Tashi’s seemingly offhand comment that she doesn’t want to become a “home-wrecker,” interposing herself into Art and Peter’s relationship reverberates throughout Challengers. Sublimated, repressed, and suppressed, whatever physical and/or emotional desires they might have for each other remain undefined and unexpressed, initially — and ultimately — transposed to the romantic triangle they form with Tashi soon after meeting her at an Adidas-sponsored event. A threesome almost forms before Tashi, revealing herself as a master manipulator of emotion and desire, offers her phone number to whoever wins the next day’s tennis match.

Offscreen, Peter wins the tennis finals the next day, setting up a discomfiting situation where Art, a student at Stanford (likely as a result of following Tashi there), plays the “friend” to both Tashi and Peter, deliberates maneuvers the break-up that inadvertently leads to a distracted Tashi’s career-ending injury and later, Art’s sliding into the supportive friend role as Tashi enters into a long, ultimately fruitless rehab. Even later in the film’s non-linear timeline, Art convinces a frustrated, unfulfilled Tashi to coach him, hopefully to tennis greatness, and with that success, a romantic partnership based on their complementary desires (Art for Tashi, Tashi for tennis success).

Art’s transactional relationship with Tashi, however, eventually begins to fracture under the strain of Tashi’s demands. As his career begins to wind down, injuries mount and self-confidence dissipates, Tashi’s desire to remain Art’s professional and romantic partner also begins to wane. Art only continues to have value as long as he continues dedicating himself to living out Tashi’s tennis dreams. As melodramatically as it sounds (and is), tennis is life (and vice versa). Life without tennis and the competitive, transcendent conflict it engenders isn’t worth living, at least not to Tashi and Peter, a myopic, self-centered trust-fund kid who can’t see himself doing anything else despite years of failure.

It’s that attraction — or rather uninhibited, unquantifiable, passionate intensity — for life-as-tennis and tennis-as-life, as simple, insightful, and ludicrous as any sports-related metaphor, that animates the tennis match periodically spread out across Challengers’s over-indulgent running time. For the onlookers at the match, it’s just one more game, a spectacle of bodies in constant, fluid, frenetic motion as time-wasting entertainment. For Tashi, Art, and Peter, it’s everything but a game; it’s life, the universe, and everything.

Challengers opens theatrically on Friday, April 26th.

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