Zendaya’s Challengers is the sensual, satisfying cure for sexless cinema

America is on a puritanical streak. Politically, individual states and the federal government keep looking for ways to completely outlaw abortion (and birth control, and health care for trans people, and books), while on social media, there’s been one hand-wringing discussion after another about whether movies should ever have sex scenes. The push to get blockbusters in front of a global audience has come with widely noticeable restrictions on sexual content — or even basic kissing. In modern studio movies, as R.S. Benedict put it, everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.

All of which makes Luca Guadagnino’s sweaty, panting sports-and-sex romantic drama Challengers feel like a thumbed nose (or a raised middle finger) aimed at American Puritanism and an increasingly sex-negative culture. Challengers is a sharp and snappy movie, full of big emotions expressed through fast-paced dialogue in some scenes and through silent, sensual physicality in others, all shot with creative verve and aggressive in-your-face energy. Everyone in this movie is chasing sex and success, and conflating those things with each other in unashamedly provocative ways.

Challengers is also, incidentally, a movie about tennis.

Zendaya, who also co-produced the movie, stars as Tashi Donaldson, a former teenage tennis superstar whose competition days ended with a traumatic knee injury. Once she reluctantly, angrily gave up on her own tennis career, she became a pro coach, leading her husband, Art (West Side Story standout Mike Faist), to a string of championships and a lucrative career.

But Art has plateaued and has been failing on the court, and his lack of confidence is killing their relationship. In what seems like a last-ditch effort to inspire him, Tashi books him into a small regional tennis tournament far below his usual bracket, where he winds up pitted against Patrick (The Crown’s Josh O’Connor), a former friend and tennis partner who’s also Tashi’s ex.

Image: MGM/YouTube

Initially, it seems like Tashi has set Art up to play a challenging match where anger and jealousy might reignite his competitive urges and get him back in the game. Really, though, her motives run much deeper. Most of Challengers takes place in flashbacks that jump back and forth in time, exploring the tangled relationships between these three people, who have complicated feelings for each other both in every possible pairing and as a threesome.

Challengers is also, incidentally, blisteringly sexy.

Playwright, novelist, musician, and YouTube personality Justin Kuritzkes (the man behind “Potion Seller”) structures the screenplay so each scene reveals a telling new wrinkle about the leads — even scenes that just seem to be summing up what we already know from previous sequences. Knowing Tashi dropped out of competition because of an injury is one thing, but seeing how it happened and how it shaped her relationships is a revelation. Each past development between Art and Patrick similarly adds new layers, until what seemed like a simple grudge match has dizzyingly complicated nuance.

That script is a terrific three-course meal for Faist and O’Connor. They get to trade off face and heel roles from scene to scene and era to era, as Art and Patrick help and hurt each other in equal measure. But it’s an absolute smorgasbord for Zendaya, who even in starring roles has never been given this much room to stretch. Tashi is a gratifyingly rich character, both righteously angry over the thwarting of her ambitions and cruelly angry at all the men who have the nerve to keep on playing the game that was taken away from her. She’s hungry for affection and withholding it at the same time, by turns sensually curious and coldly dispassionate, ambitious and exhausted, conflicted and confident. She’s the kind of character that media master’s theses are made of, and unpicking Tashi’s conflicting motives and how she integrates them is likely to become a pop culture obsession in the months to come.

Teenage tennis champion Tashi (Zendaya) leans back on a hotel bed and gives the camera a come-hither smile in Challengers Image: MGM/YouTube

Guadagnino, for his part, treats what could be a visually straightforward relationship/sports drama as a laboratory, where he tinkers with unlikely ways to communicate action and emotion on screen. Tennis can be visually repetitive for anyone not deeply invested in the athleticism of the sport, so he and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom find surprising places to focus the camera during matches: on Tashi’s shadow as she thrashes an opponent, on tellingly empty seats in the bleachers, or on the ball itself, in a series of dizzying shots where the camera appears to fly back and forth across the net with eye-watering speed. There’s a whole lot of tennis in this movie, but the director and DP make sure it’s always engaging to watch. And the breathless, driving techno score, from soundtrack stalwarts Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, gives each new match a heart-in-the-throat feeling of escalation and intensity.

But the erotic character dynamics certainly help. Challengers steers clear of actual graphic sex, but Guadagnino isn’t shy about putting sensual hunger on screen. (Unsurprising, from the man who had Timothée Chalamet messily copulating with a peach in Call Me by Your Name, and giving an easily seduced victim a simultaneous handjob and fatal wound in Bones and All.) The Tashi/Art/Patrick threesome leaps into tongue-heavy makeout sessions as if they’re all trying to devour each other. Both men weaponize their bared skin against each other, with Patrick turning a naked visit to a sauna into a swaggering, territorial act, and Art stripping off his shirt to pointedly bask in the sun between games. The displays of primal dominance throughout the movie are more sexually provocative than any prim attempt at heroic romance in a Marvel movie.

Patrick (Josh O’Connor), shirtless and scruffy and smiling, Very Pointedly eats a banana in extreme close-up in a shot from Challengers Image: MGM/YouTube

Tashi owns her own sexuality in endlessly surprising ways throughout the film, pitting Patrick and Art against each other as she watches critically from the sidelines, or pulling them into a passionate embrace with each other in bed. A lot of this movie is about how erotic desire sublimates into competitive performance, and vice versa — particularly for Tashi, who lost one of those outlets in the prime of her life and is constantly pushing the boundaries of the other.

But just as clearly, Challengers is about Tashi’s control over the two men in her life, who both want her, and both understand that she’s only going to tolerate either of them as long as they both acknowledge her dominance. There’s more than a little of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It in this story, as a woman of color confidently navigates different partnerships and prioritizes her own freedom and pleasure over commitment and domesticity.

That theme felt radical in 1986, when Lee’s film premiered — particularly for a story centering on a Black woman. But context and the state of the culture make the same dynamic feel even more radical today. In an environment that’s culturally squeamish about sex on screen and politically repressive about acknowledging female autonomy, Challengers is a full-throated provocation. It’s a sports drama where sex is openly one of the big game’s biggest stakes, and an emotional drama that’s frank and even confrontational about how sensuality can undermine relationships as much as it can cement them.

The fact that it’s beautifully crafted and constructed certainly adds spice to the mix. But maybe most importantly, Challengers is just plain fun — playful, aggressive, and a thrill to watch. It isn’t like anything else that’s hit cinemas in the past few years, and it’s enough to make viewers wonder why anyone was willing to let this kind of movie go.

Challengers debuts in theaters on April 26.


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