In 'Challengers', Three Movie Stars Are Born

How the horny ménage à trois at the film’s core marks an exciting new chapter for Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Long before anyone had actually seen Luca Guadagnino’s love triangle tennis saga Challengers, people knew about the kiss shared between its three co-leads, Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor. First teased in a trailer in 2023, the moment was immediately met with a combination of excitement and slightly nervous curiosity: Would the movie really go there, following through on the implied homoeroticism of this horny bisexual set-up? Or, would it go the way of Armie Hammer and the peach in the director’s Call Me By Your Name, pulling out at last minute only to recolor the balls on Challengers’ tennis courts from yellow to blue?

Guadagnino fortunately opts for the former, beating the queerbaiting allegations with a close-up shot of Faist and O’Connor passionately making out. But what’s most memorable about the scene is not the sheer horny delight of seeing two hot young men finally act on what feels like years’ worth of pent-up sexual tension. Rather, it’s Zendaya, sitting between them and, mid-kiss, leaning back to get a better view of the action. With a sly smirk spread across her face, the actress looks like a naughty child smashing two naked Barbie dolls together. After using her body to coax these two boys into an intimate embrace, her voyeuristic self-satisfaction is palpable. Two guys kissing is hot, sure. But Zendaya’s reaction is just as titillating. And just as telling.

Perhaps more than any project before it, Challengers underscores the movie star magnetism encircling Zendaya. During the film’s many kinetic match sequences, the camera fixates on her gaze as her head swivels from one side of the court to the other. Even when she’s saying nothing, the movie sparkles just by having her in frame. But Guadagnino knows that two movie stars are better than one—and three is the best case scenario. To complement Zendaya’s likeability, the director tapped two worthy actors with similarly sparkling screen presences for a dynamically executed love triangle. (Just look at all those slow-motion action shots, reveling in the glistening sweat running down the svelte frames of Faist and O’Connor.) As a result, Challengers is more than just a fun movie; it feels like a true arrival for three of young Hollywood’s most promising talents.

In the film, the trio all play talented tennis players. Faist and O’Connor respectively star as the disciplined but shy Arthur “Art” Donaldson and the brashly impulsive Patrick Zweig, best friends from tennis camp, while Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a Serena Williams-style prodigy whose promising career is derailed by an injury. Stretching across 13 years, Challengers jumps back and forth in time to fill in blanks about how Tashi went from dating Patrick in their late teens to marrying and having a child with Art in their early 30s; somewhere along the line, a wedge is drawn between Patrick and Art. The film is bookended by a final match between the former doubles partners, though the stakes hinged on who wins take their time to come into full focus.

<p>Youtube @MGM</p>

Youtube @MGM

Of course, none of these actors are a true “discovery.” Zendaya has been an industry mainstay since she was a teen on beloved shows like Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. In the half-decade since leaving her Disney Channel days behind, she has nabbed back-to-back Emmys for her raw portrayal of a teenage drug addict in HBO’s record-breaking Euphoria. Josh O’Connor has won an Emmy (and a Golden Globe), too, courtesy of his lauded portrayal of Prince Charles in The Crown, which turned an otherwise contemptible historical figure into someone vaguely deserving of pity. Even Faist, easily the least known of the trio, has been steadily rising the ranks for a while: after his scene-stealing performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story, the actor, already a Tony nominee, became the lucky recipient of an internet-grown campaign to get him nominated for an Oscar. (Alas, it didn’t work.)

Still, all three actors have felt just at the precipice of true movie superstardom. Despite her involvement in box office-smashing franchises like Dune and Marvel’s Spider-Man, Zendaya has yet to lead a film on her own. She tested the waters with Malcolm & Marie, a small project she made with Euphoria’s Sam Levinson during the pandemic, but that two-hander never saw the inside of a theater before landing on Netflix. Challengers is the mononymous actor’s first big-screen release with top-line billing—and as she’s made clear, there’s a lot riding on its success.

O’Connor has toplined several films, but until now, has been more of an indie darling than a matinee idol. God’s Own Country, a horny gay romance about two rugged men working on a lamb farm, has deservedly earned cult classic status in the years since its release (in large part thanks to the pathos O’Connor brought to his repressed character), but despite widespread acclaim failed to make a dent at the box office. The recently released La Chimera, in which he plays a tetchy archaeologist-turned-gravedigger, is netting the actor even more praise for a similarly haunted performance—but like God’s, the Alice Rohrwacher film is destined to become a favorite to a very small few.

Challengers seems destined to change all that. After spending years churning out arthouse fare like I Am Love and the Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name, Challengers finds Guadagnino at his most cinematically mainstream. This is a big, bold, distinctly Hollywood film, with the hefty $55 million production budget to prove it—and the buzzy cast needed to turn it into a hit.

Take Patrick: impetuous to a fault, the character is all id, moving through life with little regard for anything beyond the present moment. But what could be off-putting becomes weirdly sexy in O’Connor’s hands. The actor, using his disheveled appearance to dial up the Bad Boy bona fides, brings a shaggy charm to Patrick, tapping into a mischievous arrogance that’s also endearingly playful. Watch the way he splays out in a steam room, using a comically scanty towel to just barely cover himself up. And that’s before he lets it drop completely, lasciviously pushing the much more timid Art into a literal dick-swinging contest. (When Art asks if his former friend can “put your dick away,” Patrick gleefully sneers back, “We’re in a sauna.”) Though characters like God’s Own Country’s Johnny and La Chimera’s Arthur weren’t nearly as cocksure as Patrick, all three are connected by a similarly unpredictably volatility, an intense restlessness that prevents them from ever feeling too settled in their own lives.

<p>Youtube @MGM</p>

Youtube @MGM

Faist, for his part, is perfect as O’Connor’s clean-cut foil, matching Patrick’s rebelliousness with Art’s orderly dedication to rules and structure. Art is the beta to Patrick’s alpha—and definitely to Tashi’s—but it’s a testament to Faist’s embodiment that his character’s comparative softness still feels sweet, if not downright sexy, like a dad walking his daughter to school.

It’s a tricky balance not dissimilar to what he did in West Side Story. In Spielberg’s musical, he softened the trigger-happy street criminal Riff. Through his deeply felt performance, Riff’s trademark masculine bravado rang as overly performative, like he was going through the motions out of a sense of duty more than any active desire. Art feels like a natural extension—like his Riff, the tennis pro is battling against feelings of inadequacy and despondence.

And then, there’s Zendaya. The actress is no big screen neophyte, but Tashi, a self-motivated wunderkind who has been navigating the spotlight since childhood, feels like the type of role not only written with her in mind, but actually inspired by the space she already occupies in the real world—a case of art imitating life, and not the other way around. While Euphoria’s Rue might still be the actress at her most emotionally dynamic, Tashi finds her at her most electrifyingly irresistible. This is someone whose allure must be innate. As the character keeping her cards closest to her chest, Tashi very rarely lets her guard down, but the audience must still feel drawn to her.

Zendaya has never been more up to the challenge, locating the humanity underneath Tashi’s impenetrable facade. She turns what could be a lifeless archetype—at one end, the trophy two eager men alternately fight and fawn over; on the other, a femme fatale determined to destroy a lifelong friendship—into something far more complex. Though Challengers could be read as a film about Art and Patrick, in which Tashi is merely the object used to help them see the truth about themselves, Zendaya refuses to be written off as a mere pawn. She turns Tashi into a gravitational force; even when she’s “taking such good care of [her] little white boys,” the movie never stops orbiting around her.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of a true matinee idol is the ability to command the screen in sexy adult roles. Challengers, with its erotically-charged tennis matches and barely-concealed sexual tension, is easily one of the year’s sexiest films, the type of R-rated concupiscent content we hardly ever get to see in theaters anymore. This is quintessentially horny cinema—and thanks to the perfectly-pitched, larger-than-life performances given by Zendaya, Faist, and Josh, audiences can go to theaters and get lost in the arousing fantasy of this classically lusty ménage à trois. Now, that’s how you serve an ace.

Challengers is playing in theaters now.

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