'Challengers' review: Zendaya serves up an ace in steamy love triangle

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Is there anyone in cinema right now who has a gaze as coolly assured as Zendaya’s? In Luca Guadagnino’s tennis love triangle “Challengers,” she owns the movie and the camera, eyeing it as if daring it to reveal her thoughts. As Tashi Duncan, a tennis megastar-turned-coach after an injury, she’s utterly believable as a young woman accustomed to being looked at, an athlete frustrated by not having perfect control over her body, a person trying to figure out what life looks like when you can no longer do what you were born to do.

Zendaya is the main reason to watch “Challengers,” which is made with great style but ultimately is, well, a romantic triangle with an awful lot of artfully sweaty tennis. The two other points of the triangle are men Tashi has known since her years as a teenage tennis phenom: Art (Mike Faist, Riff in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor), longtime friends and rivals on the court and off. Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay moves us around in time; we learn early on that Tashi and Art are married and that she’s his coach — a complicated dynamic — and that both now have little contact with Patrick, who’s down on his luck. Using a crucial tennis match between Art and Patrick in the present as a framing device, we’re whooshed into various moments in their mutual past to understand the relationships and back again, quicker than an ace serve.

Set to a throbby, intoxicating score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “Challengers” homes in on the details of tennis: the perfectly beaded sweat, the grunt-and-thwack sound of a player unleashing a racket on a ball, the way a top athlete seems to know just where the ball will be coming, even before it’s hit. Zendaya’s Tashi is never still on the court, dancing a tensile tango with the ball as partner, revealing the person her character is by the way she reacts in the moment.

But the real drama of “Challengers” is meant to happen off the court, and here Guadagnino, whose specialty is swoony love stories (“Call Me By Your Name,” “I Am Love”), reminds us that he’s very good at the sweet romance of kissing scenes, and at creating a charged mood between two (or three) people. (There’s a wildly over-the-top windstorm near the end that surely categorizes as A Bit Much, but makes for great drama.) If “Challengers” sometimes feels a little too talky, or if sometimes we’re too aware that neither of these men seem quite worthy of Tashi — well, that’s the way the ball bounces. It’s not a perfect movie, but Zendaya makes it a great pleasure.




3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity)

Running time: 2:11

How to watch: In theaters April 26


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