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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Challengers // Film Review

“We’re not talking about tennis.”

What constitutes a modern movie star? Zendaya has carried several of the established traits for a while now - talent, brandwork, consistent gigging - but her most famous roles have all come with caveats. In Spider-Man, she raked in billions as a thankless love interest, while in Dune she was cocooned by an armada of fellow celebrity actors. Even Euphoria, which yielded her two Emmys, is often overlooked by nature of being TV, golden age or not. 

Challengers is arguably Zendaya’s first big starring vehicle, and the project has been sold entirely off of that fact. It’s her face on the posters, her performance featured in all the trailers and her role that gets the juiciest challenge, effectively bisected into two distinct characters. There’s the young Tashi Duncan, a hot-headed tennis prodigy with an anomalous, troublemaking gaze, and there’s the older, sanded-down Tashi, just as temperamental but more cruel than exciting.

It is in the former part which Zendaya most conventionally shines, playing the boyish dream team of Fire and Ice, Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) against one another for entertainment, insisting all the way that she could never be a “homewrecker”. It is exactly the sort of turn you’d expect from a charming, if complicated leading lady, and seems a perfect showcase for Zendaya the Movie Star… which is precisely what makes Luca Guadagnino’s film so interesting when it comes to the more embittered adult Tashi, and that very stardom is weaponised against us.

Much has been made of the film’s aggressively non-linear structure, beginning and ending with the same match while complicating every glance and stare with piled-on context through flashbacks. It is comparable in this regard to last year’s juggernaut darling Oppenheimer, where the point is rarely what we’re seeing, and more what we know of its roots or what it will come to be down the road. Guadagnino mines this format for rich nuance throughout, but to put it in the simplest of terms; when the movie begins, Zendaya is our beloved princess, glowing like Ingrid Bergman as two men do battle for her turned head. When we return to the very same set-ups in Act Three, she’s our villain, striking an entirely different sense of awe with the same few choice looks. If that isn’t the commanding presence of a movie star, I don’t know what is.

Zendaya is helped, of course, by the winning and jubilant charms of both Faist and O’Connor, whose homoerotic bromance is as romantic as their love for her is carnal. The film’s extended timeline also gives them plenty of opportunities for transformation; Art’s puppy-eyed adoration is gradually drained of colour and dapper, while O’Connor chooses to play Patrick similarly across the film, trusting the passage of time to date his boyishness from charm into something more pathetic. The death of their chemistry, and accordingly their liveliness, is the film’s centremost tragedy; in entirely different ways, they communicate precisely in the film’s climactic match that these two boys who once shared their love over churros, hot dogs and any number of other phallic foods, are now husks in the palm of Zendaya’s supposed “heroine”.

As the opening quote may have hinted, Challengers is not a film about tennis but rather about the performances and weaknesses at each corner of its central love triangle. Justin Kuritzkes’s screenplay relishes every opportunity for a metaphor or innuendo - “that’s your big problem, you always think the match is over before you’ve won it” - while cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom frames just about everything he can, from beds to barfloors, as a court for two of its three leads to face-off. 

It is the score of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross however, that will likely get the most attention coming out of the film. Their EDM club anthem themes for both the matches and players elevate everything, turning dripping sweat into drum beats and racket swings into soaring, screaming hooks. The real trick however, is that the partnered composers employ all these tricks in dialogue scenes as much as they do in the tennis; a car-based argument between Tashi and Patrick is scored with the back and forth of a rally, while a sauna confrontation late in the film has the same immediate tension as a tie-break match point. Tashi insists at one point that tennis is a relationship, and it is obvious that Reznor and Ross didn’t miss the memo.

It is strange to think that a film dramatising the final of a local New Rochelle tennis final could be the platform needed for Zendaya to break free from the likes of Timothée Chalamet or Tom Holland and establish herself as a solo movie star in unambiguous terms, but Guadagnino’s film is perfected engineered to do just that. Challengers is sexy, it is rigorous and it is dependent entirely on three tentpole performances as generous as any in recent memory. It demonstrates a flexibility not typically seen in young actors chasing starring turns; Anyone But You might have made Sydney Sweeney into a romcom queen, but Challengers has given Zendaya an opportunity to demonstrate a generational talent that can’t be pinned into any one box, catching you every time you might forget what you’re watching with the reminder that, in the clearest terms possible, this really, really isn’t about the tennis.


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