‘Challengers’ Is a Tour de Force Tour Tale of 2 Simps

In the highly anticipated film, Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist grunt, grovel, and occasionally grab each other's thighs in the name of Zendaya.

‘Challengers’ Is a Tour de Force Tour Tale of 2 Simps

There’s a scene about thirty minutes into Challengers—Luca Guadagnino’s bonafide love letter to bisexuals everywhere—which sees the three protagonists and burgeoning tennis pros engage in a tête-à-tête about their game. At this point, spectators have only begun to learn how thoroughly fucked up these people are (and how thoroughly they’ve fucked each other). There’ll be many similar back-and-forths in the remaining 100 minutes, but you quickly sense this one is of particular significance.

Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), the 18-year-old phenom of Williams sisters’ superiority, sees tennis as more than a few rackets and some balls. It’s a conversation, she theorizes to two longtime friends—the cocksure Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and cock-not-quite-as-sure Art Donaldson (Mike Feist). Sometimes, as she says of her most recent opponent, it lasts a mere 15 seconds before one competitor puts a permanent end to it. But those aren’t the exchanges Duncan is interested in. Taking home trophies will never be enough. She’s building a brand. Zweig and Donaldson are captivated only in the way that horny young men lacking their frontal lobe are capable of…which is to say that they have no idea how much she’s just revealed about herself: Physical domination of her opponent isn’t as satisfying if she can’t also intellectually dominate them. They know how to ball (she does too), she knows Aristotle (they…don’t), etc., etc. It’s this conversation that sets the stage for the film’s three-way volley—as titillating as it is toxic—that will last over a decade.

Where sports cinema has recently either leaned toward schmaltz (Boys In The Boat) or just fallen short (Next Goal Wins), Challengers is, refreshingly, all sex, sweat, and spite. There are no good guys or slow-motion trophy raises here—just a girlboss and the “two little white boys” simping for her (and occasionally, each other). They grunt, grovel, and sometimes, grab each other’s thighs. And that’s all before they make out. By the end, I suspect everyone in the theater was prepared to be these characters’ fourth—even if they’re all exceedingly difficult to root for.

Let’s recall some recent films about the love of the game, shall we? In Iron Claw, audiences could be moved by four brothers more devoted to each other than their sport. And in Air, they could be moved by…capitalism. By contrast, Challengers is, in essence, just three absurdly hot people trying to outsmart each other. Arguably, only one is successful. There’s no sweeping score or soppy dialogue. Frankly, that’s why it’s so damn fun to disappear into it for a little while: that, and the sweat-inducing chemistry of the three leads.

Toggling between the past and the present, Challengers opens with a very married Duncan and Donaldson. They’re a power couple, though it’s hardly clear who wields more of it at any given time. Following an ambiguous knee injury in college, Duncan’s career is effectively over. Now, she spends her days as her husband’s coach, though he has half her talent and, as he nears the end of his career, even less ambition. Donaldson is just one U.S. Open title away from a Career Grand Slam, but recovery from his injury and age (pro-athlete retirement is imminent) leaves him humbled. In a bid to boost his confidence, Duncan enters him in a Challenger event where he’s more likely to trounce lower-level opponents. And wouldn’t you know one of those losers is Zweig, who’s already peaked in the pros, living out of his car, and for reasons we don’t learn until later, no longer on speaking terms with Duncan or Donaldson!

Inevitably, the bros-to-foes face off against each other, though the fate of that match is interrupted by flashbacks and reserved until the last possible second. Decisions like this are a testament to the big-swing storytelling of screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes’ (Celine Song’s partner, by the way). Zweig and Donaldson, we learn, have been competing for Duncan since the day they met her. Where the former craves her affection, the latter is seeks her approval.

With every gratuitous crotch shot, guttural moan, and gulp of ego, an event from their shared past is revealed and there’s another shift in allegiance. Zweig dated Duncan until Donaldson snaked her behind his back. But a big fat diamond, a Spiderverse-obsessed daughter, and a lot of room service never really quelled Duncan’s desire for Zweig throughout the years. He and Donaldson also didn’t quite quit each other either. Countless critics have already written about how their bond borders on homoerotic, but when it’s revealed that Donaldson is bisexual (based on his dating app algorithm, at least), more than one person seated near me let out an audible gasp. Were all those lingering stares, sauna peepshows, and stolen bites of Donaldson’s hot dog, churro, and any other phallic-shaped food a little more than machismo? Sadly, that’s up to you.

Though she’s stuck on the sidelines, this final match is a metaphor for the way Duncan’s managed to maintain power. Sure, she herself can’t play, meaning that much of her status rests in her husband’s shaky hands. And I imagine it’s a bummer knowing there’s not an enduring spark in her marriage without Zweig around to light the match. But it’s her who motivates Donaldson by telling him she’ll leave him if he loses, just like it’s her who then proceeds to instruct Zweig to let her husband win before fucking him in his shitty SUV. He plays along for a while, purposefully losing the match before he can’t help himself. Zweig isn’t the kind of guy who takes orders—especially when doing so means Duncan might never leave his former friend. Surely, she already knows this. This is why Zweig’s drive to win (and Duncan’s threat, no doubt) activates something within Donaldson that hasn’t been for years.

Ultimately, it’s Donaldson who delivers what very much looks to be the winning point before falling…straight into Zweig’s arms. They look deep into each other’s eyes and offer a genuine grin. Duncan erupts in the same victorious scream from the stands since the first time we see her play. Then, the credits roll. The conclusion is clear: all three of them have mastered how to have the kind of conversation Duncan describes in the film’s first act. But the most interesting one—the one that’s transcended time—has, and always will be about Duncan. Without her, they’re just simps without anyone to simp for. Game. Set. Match.

Challengers is aspirational this way. Many of us (I think!) will only ever spend our lives hoping two people–perhaps even friends–will compete for our attention. It’s only happened once for me in my early twenties with two other writers who were notably devoid of athletic ability and sported dubious haircuts. But no one’s longing for a love triangle between three anemic white English majors from the Midwest. What’s sexy about that Phoebe Bridgers song?

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people will never know what it’s like to A) look like Zendaya, and B) have the option of rizz-personified—a man with so much raw sex appeal he can pair plaid boxers and a clashing tank top and declare he wants to be “fucked with a racket” and his fruity little friend in matching sweatbands that kisses your cheek and calls you an “inspiring woman.” Most of us will never even experience one. But if it happens to you, Challengers makes a compelling case for taking a page from Tashi Duncan’s playbook. Settle for both of them. Then, ruin their lives.

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