‘Challengers’: It’s Game, Set, Zendaya in Luca Guadagnino’s Intoxicating Dive Into Obsession

The aspirational character seeps into every aspect of a person’s life, from career choices to romance. Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” is a feverish love triangle that is also a portrait of aspirational tendencies going full throttle. Before fully jumping into all the layers at play in this tennis opus, it must be said that this is the first film by Guadagnino in years that is pure, cinematic fun. The Italian auteur seems to find inspiration everywhere, from heartbreaking summer flings to cannibal road trips. He has also remade a horror cult classic. “Challengers” is the director indulging in total joy with his camera and Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay. The approach matches the very nature of the characters who will do anything to win.

Zendaya leads the game as Tashi, once a teen tennis pro who now manages the career of her husband, Art (Mike Faist), who has found much success as a men’s tennis player. Tashi believes he can go higher despite a crushing existential crisis. To give him a boost, she signs him up for a “challenger,” or low-level championship match. But arriving to also compete is Patrick (Josh O’Connor). There is a long history between these three going back to college, when Patrick and Art were best friends who found themselves competing for Tashi’s affections as intensely as their tennis training. With time, Tashi ended up with Art, living an affluent life while Patrick has become a scruffy underdog without a cent to his name. Patrick’s arrival not only brings up the past but might also revive feelings involving all three that are far from resolved.

Every scene in “Challengers” embodies its key theme. Truly competitive people are as obsessed with whatever drives them as an artist with their craft. The love triangle begins as two college guys liking the same girl, but the instant attraction stems from how fiercely talented she is on the court. She seems to embody their perfect fantasy. Guadagnino rides the idea into some of his best material. He cuts between the past and present, telling the story of how all this began to then contrast with where everyone is now. In the best flashback, Tashi accepts an invitation from the guys to visit their hotel room then proceeds to initiate what feels like a ménage à trois. She manages to guide the two friends, who are already so comfortable with each other, to end up unknowingly making out. Before either of the two can get further with her, she demands they focus on their court skills. It’s a scene that proceeds flawlessly from erotic charge to comedy to bringing home what makes Tashi tick.

Much of the film’s addictive quality is precisely in watching these characters and their impulses, without too much psychological analysis. In most of Guadagnino’s work, attraction and action aren’t anchored by plotting, even in a melancholic gay romance like “Call Me by Your Name.” What matters is that Art and Patrick are honed to win, but neither is the force of nature that is Tashi. When Tashi dates Patrick, she’s annoyed over him not wanting to discuss tennis during foreplay. Later, Art finds a way to gain the upper hand from one of his buddy’s typical, careless mistakes. Then, Patrick is back in their lives, determined to prove something, whatever it may be, and even tease what could still linger between Tashi and him. Guadagnino builds energy with the material that does literally feel like watching an athletic match. The performances are each unique but attuned to evoke specific traits. Tashi is ruthless. Art is the quieter, nicer one while Patrick has an edge that can become unsavoriness on testosterone. These are three great actors bringing impressive resumes with titles like “Euphoria” and “The Crown.” Guadagnino brings out new maturity and edge from all three. Zendaya in particular confirms she’s moving on from those young adult-oriented roles in the “Spider-Man” movies and “Euphoria,” proving she can be a complex powerhouse on screen.

Visually, this is the director’s liveliest film since “I Am Love.” Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom frames the movie elegantly then pulls off some roller coaster moments where the camera takes on the POV of a tennis ball soaring between players. There’s the sensation of the sheer, sweaty physical strain of playing a sport and competing with someone else over the same person. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who composed an elegiac score for Guadagnino’s cannibal romance, “Bones and All,” dabble in EDM-inspired sounds that inject the movie with even more relentless feel. The end credits feature a new song, “Compress/Repress,” where Reznor’s vocals sound like some fantastic Nine Inch Nails track taken out of the vault. These are collaborators not content with giving us the same old story about two guys competing for the same girl. Guadagnino finds some sly humor, but it isn’t a rom com, much in the same way that his “Suspiria” from 2018 was more than a horror film. “Challengers” is also not a “sports film,” which ironically makes it one of the truest films about sports in a while.

Like many an auteur, Guadagnino is undeniably a magnificent director who has sometimes fallen into being a bit self-indulgent. This is one of his best for how focused and free it feels. No scene runs longer than it should, because these are personalities always on the move. They are all made for each other and you sense that Tashi would have no time for someone who wants to take a break or thinks about vacation time. Their sport is life and it’s the same when we become determined to win someone’s heart. Hopefully, audiences discover the movie amid a sea of IP overload and franchise reboots. At times, Guadagnino’s films can feel as if they belong to the golden age of ‘70s filmmaking, when taking chances was more encouraged. There’s no timidity here in exploring desire, sex and the obsession to prove something. “Challengers” is in its own, original rush. Everyone involved makes it come alive because they are in it to win.

Challengers” releases April 26 in theaters nationwide.