An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dan Webster reviews "Challengers"

Film still of Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in Challengers (2024).
Challengers, Frenesy Film Company/MGM/Pascal Pictures/Why Are You Acting Productions/Amazon MGM Studios, 2024.
Film still of Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in Challengers (2024).


In at least two of his previous films—2015’s A Bigger Splash and 2017’s Call Me by Your Name—the Sicilian-born filmmaker Luca Guadagnino tackled themes of passion and desire.

In the former, the emotions complicate the three-way relationship between a rock star, her boyfriend and an old flame. In the latter, they deepen the bond that develops between a teenager and the older man he falls for.

Guadagnino’s interest in the twists and turns that come with such powerful emotions is even more complex in his latest film, titled Challengers.

Zendaya plays Tashi, a one-time tennis phenom whose career ends before it ever really begins. Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor play, respectively, Art and Patrick, longtime best friends and skilled tennis players in their own right.

Over the course of two hours and eleven minutes, Guadagnino introduces us to this trio, playing with chronology so that we flip back and forth between the years—from when Tashi is a teenage celebrity terror on the court and the two boys, courting their own dreams of success, are drawn to her… to years later when Tashi is the wife and manager of the multi-major-tournament winner Art, and Patrick, having alienated himself from the couple, is barely hanging on, seemingly having wasted his obvious talents.

Their three-way relationship re-emerges at a pre-U.S. Open so-called "Challenger tournament," at which Art—having lost his edge and recovering from an injury—is trying to summon the effort to make one last stab at winning the final major championship that has eluded his earning tennis’ fabled Grand Slam. Patrick, meanwhile, is hoping merely to qualify for the coming major, while Tashi is… well, that’s where the screenplay for Challengers, written by Justin Kuritzkes becomes a challenge in and of itself.

As portrayed by Zendaya, the singer/actress whose previous movie roles include two Spider-Man appearances as well as being cast in both of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films, Tashi—unable to participate in the sport she loves—is driven to win at business with the same intensity she showed on the court. It is that same intensity, too, that she uses to inspire—maybe even to manipulate—Art… especially when he doesn’t seem to want it anymore.

And if Art doesn’t play, if he settles for being a husband and father to the daughter he shares with Tashi, where does that leave her? What does she do with her unresolved ambitions—the same ambitions that leads her to edit the title of a marketing campaign to ensure that she is credited, too?

One way of interpreting Kuritzkes’ screenplay is to see all three characters as existing fully only during those moment in which they are in the heat of competition, when—as happens in the film’s climactic moment—players are so intent on winning a point that they volley back and forth virtually face to face. As unlikely as that might be in an actual match, it captures the sense of the unrequited emotions—some of which are clearly homoerotic—that each character tightly holds.

In portraying this onscreen, Guadagnino resorts to a full cinematic thesaurus of stylistic touches, from drone shots of court action to intense closeups and even in one scene a player’s point-of-view perspective during a match. And much of this, particularly during the tennis sequences, are accompanied by the pulsating music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—their rhythms powerfully underscoring the intensity of Guadagnino’s visuals.

As for the acting, the 27-year-old Zendaya shows that she has grown from an adolescent into a fully adult actress. Faist, who won fame by playing Riff in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of the musical West Side Story, captures the full range of Art’s equivocation. And O’Connor, the British actor maybe known best for playing the young Prince Charles in the Netflix series The Crown, is perfect as a skilled and sometimes charming scamp.

In the end, Challengers is less of a study of tennis than it is an exploration of what it means to seek emotional fulfillment without fully understanding the underlying motivations. These three characters may never understand what drives them. Which leaves them—and us—trying to find meaning in that single climactic moment when those feelings play out at their highest intensity.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

Related Content
  • On this week's show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss two films that involve the theme of challenges. The first is “Challengers,” director Luca Guadagnino’s look at a three-way relationship among tennis players. The second is a challenge to our very senses, director Bertrand Bonello’s head-scratching study “The Beast.”
  • The Italian director Luca Guadagnino isn’t known for restraint, and his newest film “Challengers” is a big, stylish melodrama about obsession and betrayal in the world of tennis. Nathan Weinbender says it’s a lot of fun, and made with more energy and zeal than most mainstream movies.