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by Victoria Alexander

It is an intense decades-long love affair between two men. Zendaya plays the strict, disapproving mommy keeping them apart. It’s so obvious, she acknowledges it several times.

Here is what is wrong with CHALLENGERS and why it has not done the box office expected. Intended as a star vehicle for Zendaya, it fails due to casting. Director Luca Guadagnino’s provocative staging of every scene between tennis pros Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) is seductively obvious. Zendaya is a prop keeping their friendship heterosexual. Until it’s not. The infamous 3-way “sex scene” is a tease. Tashi (Zendaya) manipulates Patrick and Art to kiss her at the same time then moves their faces so they are deep kissing each other instead of her.

Not only do they keep at it, they like it.

The sexual flirtation between Patrick and Art is constant. Patrick is always looking at Art with lust while Art is supposedly clueless. When Patrick flaunts his naked body over Art in a sauna, he shoves his penis at Art’s face. Do straight guys behave like this?

O’Connor and Faist are competent, but they were not cast to take any heat away from Zendaya’s star power. CHALLENGERS is Zendaya’s first “name above the title” movie. Let’s say beautiful newcomers - like Nicholas Galitzine from MARY AND GEORGE and Zendaya’s EUPHORIA co-star Jacob Elordi - were cast, focus would be on them, instead of Zendaya. And Zendaya has learned to vet her co-stars carefully (Sidney Sweeney).

CHALLENGERS is responsible for a new dating trend, thanks to leading stars Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor having – it’s called “hot rodent” qualities. The reign of “Golden Retriever” male heartthrobs is apparently over. Now, unconventionally attractive male stars “with sharp eyes and angular faces” are known as the “hot rodent” type. Barry Keoghan and Jeremy Allen White are in this category.

The film moves in time back and forth. Patrick and Art met at a tennis academy and have been friends since they were 12 years old. We see them early in their careers on the circuit playing together as “Fire and Ice.” Meeting Tashi, a protégé headed to play tennis at Stanford, Patrick, and Art both make a play for her. Art is a sweet, shy kid. Patrick is a sexual maverick taking advantage of his rising fame.

Forecasting the sexual dynamic, watching Tashi play, Art says to Patrick, “I’d let her fuck me with a racket.” What young straight guy tells his best friend – the one who taught him how to “self pleasure” at tennis academy – he is willing to receive anal sex with an instrument from a female? Sure, she is beautiful, but this is a troubling comment.

And, keeping with the gay sex theme, Art confirms Patrick has a bigger penis than him.

Guadagnino’s direction has Patrick and Art always with their faces touching and while Patrick is supposed to be a sexual dynamo, he is always smiling at Art with “let’s fuck” eyes.

Tashi says she will date whichever one wins the match they are playing. Patrick wins and starts dating Tashi. Art succeeds in making Tashi question Patrick’s interest in her. Tashi’s brilliant career on the court ends with an injury and Art asks her to be his coach.

Under Tashi’s guidance, Art becomes a champion. He is a certified tennis star. They marry, have a child and enough money to start a charity. But Art’s love of the game is weak and the only thing driving him is Tashi’s passion for the game. Art has mommy issues and needs Tashi’s domination and threats: “Either win or I am leaving you.” 

Truth is, Art wants to quit tennis. He may be a young, handsome tennis star, but fame, endorsements, groupies, and media obsession have not changed him. He still clings to mommy Tashi. What can he do to make Tashi happy?

Mommy Tashi is tough. Art better shape up or else. To re-ignite Art’s confidence, she enters him into a New Rochelle “Challenger” event so he can win against lower-level players.

Guess who turns up? Trust fund bad boy Patrick. Leaving his rich family behind, he is so poor he hungrily eyes someone’s bagel and she gives him half. He sleeps in his car and does not bathe. He’s entered the “Challenger” event for the qualifying money.

The homoerotic motif is always present. Patrick and Art are always eating hot dogs and bananas. Patrick takes a long, thin churro out of Art’s mouth and devours it.

In my X-rated CHALLENGERS fantasy, Guadagnino has Patrick and Art dancing naked after Tashi leaves their “3-way tease” room.

O’Connor and Faist are not traditionally handsome. Art does not grow into a superstar tennis pro. They do not look like athletic tennis players. O’Connor is clearly the director’s favorite with his strong, prominent nose. Guadagnino’s subtext is clear in the way he directs and films O’Connor. He should have a big gay following after CHALLENGERS. He has that smiling, smarmy dangerous appeal.

Tashi’s motivation is to make Art a champion again. She does whatever she needs to do and uses Patrick and Art’s weaknesses to her advantage. She is cunning and selfish. The way a “Challenger event” goes, players are matched and then the winner progresses forward. So course Patrick and Art have to play each other. Which one wins?

I had to go to Wikipedia to read who won. Maybe you will understand the outcome better than me. Patrick and Art embrace and Tashi cheers. No one lost.

For Zendaya, the role offers her dramatic dimensions. Tashi is mature and has a steely presence. What is lacking is any sexual chemistry with Patrick or Art. She’s a mother but not very motherly. Handling needy Art is a full-time job. Except for nice hotel rooms, Tashi and Art do not seem to enjoy their wealth.

I really like Guadagnino’s films – except this one. He knows how to create a movie star (Armie Hammer). I cannot help but think Guadagnino took this job for the Hollywood prestige of guiding Zendaya to her first starring role. Was there some misunderstanding about the direction of the film? Zendaya was supposed to be the love interest of two friends, instead, due to the director’s skill, she becomes the intruder in their love story. Didn’t anyone notice how Guadagnino filmed Patrick and Art too close and Patrick’s sexy looks – not at Tashi but Art?


The ALL is Mind; The Universe is Mental.”

Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer Critic. For a complete list of

Victoria Alexander's movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to:

Contributing to:FilmsInReview:

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society


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