Tennis Has Never Been Sexier Than in Challengers

Photos Courtesy of MGM.

Let’s talk about sex…in movies. The discourse around sex scenes in movies has been truly a tiresome one, but with spicy scenes in Oppenheimer and Poor Things causing a fervor on social media, many have taken a stance on whether we need sex in our movies. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we had erotic thrillers making hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple movies in which men cheated on their wives, and that somehow led to a murder or crime of some sort (often featuring Michael Douglas). Recently, our movies have become sexless. Most romcoms we get are devoid of any scintillating aspects, sex comedies are largely extinct, and no one seems to know what an erotic thriller is anymore. I’m not here to make a stance on whether we need more sex scenes in movies or not. I think our movies for grown-ups need a ton more sexual chemistry between the leads. And, Challengers gives us that and more. 

Movies have become all-or-nothing gambits. Either studios make movies that cater to the whole family or reserve their adult-oriented films for awards season which are usually smaller in scale. We rarely get big-budget adult dramas and it seems director Luca Guadagnino is one of the few filmmakers who is still making these films. Challengers is his biggest movie yet and perhaps his best. It’s sumptuous, seductive, and sexy. It works as a tennis movie and a drama. It features three young stars who play complicated characters with a wide range of moralities, never really telling you how to feel or who to root for. It’s the movie we’ve been begging for this past decade. Challengers feels like a throwback to the great movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s yet feels fresh in today’s movie culture.

Tashi looks at Patrick at night with a red light shining on her.
Tashi (Zendaya) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) in Challengers. Photos Courtesy of MGM.

Since I opened up about sex in movies, let’s dive into the sex in Challengers. This is easily one of the sexiest movies to come out since 2010. Someone could make the argument this is the sexiest movie of the past two decades and I’d believe they would have a strong argument. The film does not rely on the actual portrayal or depiction of sex to drive home its salacious aspects. Guadagnino uses the idea of sex and sexual attraction between the three leads to build their characters and the narrative around them. There aren’t a ton of actual sex scenes but there is a lot of flirting, sexual tension (that you could cut with a knife), passionate kissing, and glaring/staring in which you can easily tell the intentions of the characters. This is one unapologetic horny movie and it’s wonderful.

Anyone But You is not a perfect movie by any standards, but if not for the sexual chemistry/tension between Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, that movie would not make $200+ million at the box office. Sex scenes in some movies and TV shows (see: Euphoria) can be gratuitous, but I could argue a lot of movies could benefit from their leads having more flirtatious energy. This lack of propulsive energy has to do with a lack of young stars, but this new generation is showing so many signs of promise. Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist are right there with Sweeney and Powell with this new breed of stars who are staying away from lazy IP (Twisters does not count and is going to rock) and doing things on screen that many would consider “bold,” but they’re just making movies for grown-ups. 

Faist was a revelation in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story as Biff and plays something different as Art in Challengers. Biff is charismatic and confident and Art, well, is kind of a simp for Tashi (Zendaya). We like Art and we can sort of root for him, but there is a bubble of patheticness that surrounds him that he can’t escape. His character is designed to be dominated by Tashi and Patrick (O’Connor) but Faist’s screen presence and natural, strong acting abilities don’t let his performance go unnoticed.

I’ll get to Zendaya shortly, but O’Connor steals the show in Challengers. I wouldn’t call any of these characters a hero or villain because Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes treat their characters as dynamic and complicated humans. They have their strengths and many, many flaws. O’Connor plays the closest thing to a villain—perhaps heel is a better word. Patrick, in one word, is a slimy character. I won’t get into the specifics of what his character does, but he is someone you don’t wanna be friends with. After enjoying his incredible performance as Prince Charles on The Crown, I was intrigued to see how his acting style would be translated on the big screen. Folks, the dude can act. We should hate this character at every point, but O’Connor has so much charm that we can’t help but be drawn to him, like moths to a light. His chemistry with Zendaya is scorching hot but is arguably even more with Faist. The director and writer never make it clear what Patrick and Art mean to each other, but there is a fire that connects them.

Patrick talking to Tashi romantically at night.
Zendaya and Josh O’Connor have fantastic chemistry. Photos Courtesy of MGM.

Alright, the Zendaya of it all. Zendaya is one of the most famous people on the planet and is a strong actress. She essentially has an extended cameo in Dune: Part One and, while she has more to do and is quite good in Part Two, some have said she gets shortchanged in the sequel (especially in the third act). People have been waiting for her to get a chance to truly lead a movie and Challengers is billed as that. How much of that is true is going to be dependent on the viewer. I think some are going to be frustrated/mad with her usage and the way her character’s responsibilities are in the narrative. I thought she was luminous and embodied what it means to be a movie star.

See, some of our best movie stars don’t have to give soliloquies or monologues to prove they’re great actors. And that’s because being a great movie star does not always mean being the best actor. I adore Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney. Does that mean they are better actors than Daniel Day-Lewis? No, absolutely not. But they are 100% better movie stars than Day-Lewis. Tashi is a tennis sensation and Guadanigno casts a sensation in Zendaya to portray her. Tashi is stunning and confident; so is Zendaya. Tashi is smart and looks out for herself; Zendaya has those qualities. I can understand those who say her character only serves (no pun intended) to drive the story of the two white men, but I would not reduce it to that. At all times, Tashi is pulling the strings and she isn’t dumb enough to tie her fate completely to chance. She knows what she wants and how to get it, even if she won’t explicitly say it. Zendaya looks gorgeous wearing some truly amazing outfits and lets her eyes and looks do more than dialogue. This is someone who knows she is a movie star and is actively giving a movie star performance. It worked for me to a great degree and I think she truly has never been better. 

A lot of credit has to be given to Guadagnino for directing this movie with his uncompromised vision. Kuritzkes’ writing is really interesting because the movie is non-linear and bounces from different eras in these characters’ lives with very little hand handholding. There are not many cues or time cards that slow down the narrative, rather Guadagnino trusts his audience to follow the arc of the characters. There is a version of Challengers that is made linearly but that, ultimately, makes for more of a rote story. I enjoyed the bouncing narrative and felt it was akin to a tennis ball going back and forth on a court. The narrative does get slightly convoluted at times, particularly in a rushed third act. Most of Challengers is paced exquisitely but I would have liked to see the last 30 minutes to have a better rhythm.

Patrick talks to Art with his hands up.
Mike Faist is excellent as Art. Photos Courtesy of MGM.

But, the best decision Guadagnino makes is getting Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor to score Challengers. As a die-hard Fincher fan, I was ecstatic to see their work in this movie and it does not disappoint. They use an ’80s-inspired synth score throughout the movie, unlike anything they’ve done before, but it works so well. Just like the film, the score is stressful, sexy, and fast. It adds to the tension and is used impeccably by Guadagnino. Not only does he use it in the tennis scenes, but he uses it in scenes where the characters are in a heated conversation or getting hot and heavy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a score like this used in this fashion and I could not get enough of it. The director also dials up the volume, so the score is insanely loud—to the point where it drowns out some of the dialogue (that is most likely a sound mixing issue, but a fascinating creative choice). This score is going to be on repeat for me.

The tennis in Challengers is dynamic and compelling. Moneyball notwithstanding, I’m not the biggest sports movie guy, since I feel they’ve all been done before but you have not seen tennis like this. The camera captures these intense matches in a unique way where the audience’s POV is constantly changing. Sometimes we’re viewing from afar, sometimes from one player, maybe the ground, or even the ball. The camera is also moving constantly or if it’s not, it’s because the ball is coming directly at you. The characters are sweating and grunting and I wonder if Guadagnino felt that he didn’t need actual sex scenes because these matches serve that same purpose. The climactic match was a doozy and had me on the edge of my seat. The ending is going to elicit a conversation of its own, but I think it ends perfectly and commend Guadagnino and Kuritzkes for going the unconventional route.

Challengers is sold on these aspects: sex, tennis, and movie stars. And, it delivers on all three of those things. The sexual chemistry between the trio is a hoot, the tennis is captivating and suspenseful, and the three actors, who are in every frame of the movie and receive no help from a supporting cast, don’t let you take your eyes off the screen. In the movie, Tashi says she takes good care of her little white boys. With Challengers, the actors and Guadagnino take great care of us. 

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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