April 25, 2024

REEL | 40–Love – Zendaya Breaks 'Challengers'

"Decimate that little bitch!"
Zendaya Josh O'Connor Mike Faist Justin Kuritzkes | Luca Guadagnino's Challengers
Amazon MGM Studios / Warner Bros. Pictures
Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino's exhilaratingly sexy tennis romantic thriller Challengers is about how the magnetic Zendaya (also a producer) is so powerful and talented a force of nature—even only at partial strength due to a career-ending knee injury—that having sweaty, passionate post-match sex with only one of Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist (perfectly pitted against one another) and not both at the same time is simply just not enough for her. We can easily sympathize.

Filled with psychosexual tension, the steamy trio of young tennis stars become locked in a seductive love triangle over the course of thirteen years from teenagers to mid-career professional athletes. How their spicy three-way relationship unfolds over many years centres the film's enticing central drama in the vein of an erotic thriller with much more suggestive content than actually anything particularly explicit or tawdry.

Courtesy of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' propulsive techno score expertly synced to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's dynamic camera movements, the film's high-stakes matchup serves up plenty of captivating material between its powerful lead characters playing tennis. Written by playwright/novelist Justin Kuritzkes, curiously the husband of Past Lives writer/director Celine Song whose debut film featured her own sparkling cinematic threesome, his script fully fleshes out each characters motivations from the two close male friends turned rivals to the whipsmart, driven female athlete too smart to bet everything on simply being a professional athlete.

Everything about Challengers is working overtime at maximum capacity to drive home the story of these three from horny teenage athletes to Ivy League students, semi-pro tennis players, coaches, and partners. Its entanglements spanning over a decade of their young lives only heightens their internal jealouslies and stubborn determination. It sublimely uses the game of tennis as a metaphor for life's many swings in alternating directions while pitting friends, lovers, and enemies against each other at both opportune and inopportune times.

Challengers wears its stylish passion on the screen by amping up the hallmarks of the sports drama to enchance the romantic drama of its thrilling characters. Zendaya, O'Connor, and Faist are a perfect match for each other as both friends and foes on and off the court. Zendaya has never been better in a complex role that uses both her smarts and sexiness to elevate the dramatic highs of tennis rallies. Guadagnino's full confidence behind the camera makes the love triangle sizzle to its breaking point.

More | YVArcade / Indiewire / Polygon

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