Challengers Review: Zendaya Owns Luca Guadagnino's Kinetic, Sultry Sports Drama

You won’t be able to tear your eyes off of this drama dealing with sex, sports, and winning.

Zendaya looking forward stoically while wearing sunglasses in Challengers.
(Image: © Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The drive to win is something that most everybody can identify with, and one of the great conflicts can be summed up in one question: “Who wants it more?” Director Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers isn’t the first movie to tackle that subject, however it is one of the most effective. Taking writer Justin Kuritzkes’ story of three tennis players who engage in competition on and off the court, the Call Me By Your Name helmer executes a high stakes, high tension drama of extreme intimacy with vigor and momentum. 


Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor laugh while flanking Zendaya in Challengers.

(Image credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Release Date: April 26, 2024
Directed By: Luca Guadagnino
Written By: Justin Kuritzkes
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity
Runtime: 131 minutes

Every single aspect of this project is at the top of its game, and its champion is Zendaya, who stars in addition to being one of Challengers’ producers. Between that more personal connection to the material, and Luca Guadagnino’s preference for intimately scaled stories, the resulting movie is a white hot streak of spite, sex, and scorekeeping. 

Told over the course of 16 years, Challengers weaves between the past and present of Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis phenom who had to give up the game after a traumatic injury. As the coach for her husband Art (Mike Faist), her competitive drive focuses on his career as a pro – which adds a source of frustration in their household. 

Further complication arrives with Patrick (Josh O’Connor), Art’s former partner and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend. Patrick enters as a wild card opponent in a tournament meant to boost Art's flagging career, and the estranged players face off for the first time in years.

Challengers’ set up sounds deceptively simple, but as it unfolds, it's clear Luca Guadagnino and Justin Kuritzkes are not interested in a standard “sexy” pot boiler. Instead, it's one of this year’s best films so far thanks to an unconventionally kinetic treatment of that drama.

Challengers is refreshingly smart and open with its sexuality, treating the topic as more than just a mere source of drama.

We learn that one night in a hotel between Tashi and her “little white boys” kicks off over a decade’s worth of regret, animosity, and competition, and while sexuality is a vital topic throughout Challengers’ story, it’s never treated as shameful or cheap. Yes, there’s some questionable morality linked in, but the act of sex itself isn’t the form of conflict. It’s all the messy motivations that get in the way of any sort of happiness.

While sexuality is an open topic throughout Challengers, it’s not as explicit as some may expect. Some may be walking into this movie expecting something more tawdry like Basic Instinct, but that expectation proves unfair – if only because this story cuts deeper (and dare I say crueler) than what someone would expect out of this sort of film. 

The sexuality of Challengers also isn’t physically explicit, albeit with make-out scenes and nudity scattered throughout. There’s a lot of brilliant detail painted in the deliberate choices of what we do and don’t see take place. The entire finale of the movie, played out through an intense round of tennis, puts a button on this – a fine work of emotional illustration doing what verbal exposition or an explosive argument couldn't have done. 

There’s still expert patter that takes place between the three characters at the heart of Challengers, but intentions can be signaled through a properly timed and subtle gesture. And if words or physical expression can’t say it, then the absolute banger of a score from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross picks up the slack. Nothing goes to waste in Challengers.

Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist make a perfect trio of scene partners.

Zendaya’s performance as Tashi Duncan is a flat out triumph. This should be a career defining role for her, as she dominates the screen with cold-as-ice one-liners and ferocious energy. Luca Guadagnino really seizes Zendaya’s strengths as a performer, and Justin Kuritzkes’ script provides her with dialogue destined to be quoted between the fan club that should be forming for this movie.

Sharply written, Tashi’s motivations to become a cutting edge tennis pro sidestep a number of tropes. While she is a puppet master of sorts and holds herself to the highest standards with an chilly demeanor, she’s never made a villain. Everyone in Challengers’ conflict-filled story of love and tennis is equally at fault, with each character getting a chance to be vulnerable and vicious. Human nature is rendered naturally complex in this cinematic world, and it thankfully means that Tashi isn’t merely an “unlikable” protagonist. Her penchant for harsh words is kind of endearing.

Equally up to the task of serving this deliciously spiteful masterpiece are Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist. As friends-turned-rivals from their time orbiting Tashi’s interrupted ascent into stardom, the boys make for perfect foils to the woman they individually vie for – though this isn’t merely a story about their motivation to see who can maintain her favor the longest. Challengers is a film of a fluid sexuality befitting of modern times. So it’s just as fun to see Art and Patrick flirting with Tashi as it is to see them flirting with each other. 

That angle will definitely be one that can be debated back and forth along with other mysteries with which Challengers leaves its audience. What can’t be debated, however, is that Zendaya, O’Connor, and Faist are a performance power throuple.

Luca Guadagnino continues to push boundaries with Challengers, resulting in a film that we should be talking about straight through to awards season.

Technically and thematically masterful, Challengers takes the seemingly stuffy sport of tennis and turns it into a battle royale. The movie is neither a totally devoted portrayal of the sport at work nor a traditionally soapy sex drama, but fans of top notch acting and lightning quick drama are well-served. As Luca Guadagnino and Justin Kuritzkes push the boundaries of both, and the resulting film fuses them into a stunning win.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the final showdown between Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, which is one of the most intense depictions of tennis on film I've seen. As their exhaustion and determination show through slow motion sweat, this literally sultry world where the temperature always seems a bit hotter than normal comes to a head. Managing to be both literally hot while also embodying the more sensual definition of the word, the results of this finale are going to leave everyone talking.

I do have one nitpick, and it’s the repeatedly use of title cards to denote when certain stretches of time are set. It’s a minor quibble, but they are significant enough to take me out of movie. With the visual language of this picture being as strong as it happens to be outside of this practice, it’s something that stands out prominently despite being so minor. 

Challengers is a story where, from open to close, its characters are always on their feet, looking for the next obstacle. Something is always happening. Someone is always making a move, never letting the ball fall out of play for too long before delivering the next serve. The movie flies as a result of such intensity, but the audience is never lost, and by the time you’ve finished Challengers, you’re going to want a rematch to see what you missed the first time.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.