The poster for Challengers used as part of The Escapist's review of the movie.

Challengers Review: The Youth Are Gonna Get Way Into Tennis

Warning: The following review contains spoilers for Challengers.

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Luca Guadagnino makes the most beautiful trash. I mean that as the highest compliment. Here are the plots of his last 3 movies:

  • A 17-year-old boy falls in love with an older man on vacation
  • An American girl goes to a modern dance school run by witches
  • Two young cannibals fall in love

I doubt just reading those you’d expect any of them to be some of the most beautiful films you’ve ever seen, but they are! And now, with Challengers, we have “Tennis Love Triangle,” which is, somehow, on track to be one of the biggest movies of the year.

How does he do it? On paper, it’s pretty simple: he’s a very capable director — all his films are gorgeously shot — and he picks cool scripts. Then he loads them with really, really good actors.

Challengers is the story of the life-long friendship/rivalry between three young tennis stars: Tashi (Zendaya), set to become the next women’s tennis superstar, and former boarding school bunk mates and current doubles partners Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Conner.) The movie opens in 2019 at the finals of a challenger tournament — sort of the minor leagues of pro tennis — where Art and Patrick square off while Tashi watches from the stands. As their 2019 match moves forward, we flash back to key moments in their lives, the tension building. 

Using the natural structure of sport to frame your movie isn’t anything new, but every jump backward in time is smartly used to give us maximum story and emotional impact. Guadagnino isn’t above using basic tricks to get the momentum going. Whenever the pace starts to lag, he drops Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ banger of a theme song, often playing it over whole scenes. It works every time.

It’s not that the scenes are boring without the music. All three leads are incredible actors who play believable tennis stars. The two men’s theatre background is obvious, and the big scenes of the film feel like a play, but this is a work by a master filmmaker. 

Guadagnino packs every frame of Challengers with these beautiful people, often using long lenses to make them seem even closer together than they are. Nothing is out of place; no element is an accident. Early on, he makes a point of showing not just their beauty, but their scars. These people are driven, intense, and focused—and they pay for it. But just when you think this is going to be some heady, pretentious art house film, there’s a scene where the two guys eat each other’s churros, or one of them slaps the other in the dick. This is glorious, celebratory trash served in a crystal chalice.

The art house sheen of everything is deliberate. I think Luca Guadagnino is making a play to be the art house director of The Youths and Challengers is his pitch: “See,” He seems to say, “movies can be pretty and stupid. Great film doesn’t have to be boring.” I can see this being an awakening for budding young cinephiles the way Blade Runner was for me.

If you think of it like that, of course he put Zendaya at the front of Challengers. The movie is obsessed with Zendaya. There is an early shot, synced to one of those needle drops, where the camera zooms to her while Art and Patrick trade blows across the court. This message, too, is blunt: all this yelling and smashing is in service to her. We’re all here for her.

It’s easy to say that Zendaya is having a moment, but the truth is she’s been having a moment for half a decade. In 2024, she is not only the star but the focal point of two of the biggest and best movies of the year, made by two of the most interesting directors on the planet. For any other actor, this would be an arrival (like my guy Glen Powell with the double impact of Hit Man and Twisters later this year) but for Zendaya it feels like something more: an ascension.

She’s not just “good” in Challengers, Zendaya is Challengers, and I can’t think of anyone in her cohort of young actors who could carry this part. Sydney Sweeney and Jenna Ortega are too innocent, Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan too adult. Only Zendaya can carry both the cocky drive of a young athlete and the brittle perfectionism of an ultra-rich business owner with the ribbon of movie star charm to make us root for her. 

She is in control of every atom. She knows exactly how she looks and when and how to manipulate these two boys (and us) into thinking and feeling exactly what she wants. The last time I was this captivated by an actor was Cate Blanchette in Tár.

It’s not just that she’s a Disney kid who’s been on camera for most of her life — Ryan Gosling wasn’t this good at 27 — it’s her familiarity with herself as a brand that she, by some magic, manages to balance while also being a grounded, emotional, believable actor.

Zendaya is also a producer on Challengers, and I think that, more than her performance, is a sign of things to come. As a movie star, she’s thoroughly made it. Sure, she hasn’t won an Oscar, but it’s hard to imagine her even wanting to. The acting business seems small-time for her now. She’s in the empire-building business. 

Don’t believe me? The poster for Challengers is a close-up of her face; one of the first things you see her do in the movie is write notes on a poster of her face. Just like everything else in Challengers, this is not an accident. This is a story of a woman completely in control, even when she’s not.

This is one of the most deliberately pleasing movies I’ve ever seen. Every frame, every music note, every action is carefully calculated to squeeze the maximum possible juice from your id. Even the product placement is funny! In a less capable film, this kind of naked manipulation would feel, well, manipulative, but the whole enterprise is just too damn fun to be offensive. 

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Colin Munch
Colin has been writing online about storytelling in movies, TV, and video games since 2017. He is an actor, screenwriter, and director with over twenty years of experience making and telling stories on stage, on the page, and on film. For The Escapist, he writes the Storycraft column about, you guessed it, storytelling in movies and video games. He's on Threads @colinjmunch