‘Challengers’ is the bisexual film of the year 

REVIEW: The tennis threesome drama with Zendaya at the centre is a celebration of sexiness and sport

If you’ve seen anything online about Luca Guadganino’s latest film Challengers—it’s likely about one scene: Zendaya’s Tashi in a shitty motel room slyly asking Josh O’Connor’s Patrick and Mike Faist’s Art to join her on the bed. There’s only a moment’s hesitation when Art asks “which one of us?” before both jump on either side of her. We see them each kiss Tashi and then it cuts to her watching something between Patrick and Art with a deliciously evil grin on her face. 

It’s the scene that’s made people wildly anticipate the tennis throuple drama since last summer, before its release date got pushed due to the simultaneous WGA/SAG strikes. Now Challengers is finally in theatres, and thankfully Guadganino has made one of the most bisexual films in recent history. 

Tashi Duncan is a brilliant young tennis player on the brink of stardom when she meets Patrick and Art as teenagers. But an unfortunate injury changes her life trajectory—leading her to coach Art, her now husband, who is now a famous tennis player. He’s in a rut, so she enters him in a low-stakes challengers event, a match that allows players to qualify for the bigger tournaments, to knock him out of it, but when they discover that Patrick, Tashi’s former boyfriend and Art’s former best friend is playing at the challenger as well, all of their old wounds and sexual tension come roaring back. 

Guadganino directing a film about sports at first might seem out of left field for the prolific director, but at its core, Challengers is about desire and the many ways it manifests. And there’s no director who understands desire better than Gudaganino, whose previous films explore the subject through multiple great Tilda Swinton roles (I Am Love is a must-see), cannibals in Bones and All and Timothée Chalamet eating the peach in Call Me by Your Name

Even before Art and Patrick meet Tashi—there’s tension between them. They have been best friends since they were young and attending the same tennis academy. They are constantly touching and bantering when we first meet them. Their dynamic feels very bisexual—do you want to be them or fuck them?—which continues throughout the film. It’s even revealed that Patrick taught Art how to jerk off.

Their will-they-won’t -they? dynamic is also present with Tashi. When they first see her play, Art grabs Patrick’s thigh in the stands when she makes a point. Their collaborative lust for her leads them to approach her after Patrick quips that he’d let Tashi “fuck him with the racket” at a party. Tashi’s entrance into their twosome just highlights the not-just-friendly dynamic between the two—especially when she continuously says that she doesn’t want to homewreck them. 


Eventually she does—dating Patrick at first, which doesn’t immediately change Patrick and Art’s dynamic, despite Art’s ongoing worship of Tashi. For Patrick, he even tells Art that his continued longing and light sabotaging of his relationship with Tashi makes it “hotter” for him. But when Tashi breaks up with him—Art doesn’t choose his longtime best friend, he chooses her, which leads him to money, fame and getting Tashi. 

But even after the pair have been estranged for years—when Art’s married to Tashi and is a famous tennis player and Patrick is a mess—they still have that dynamic and a crackling chemistry. No scene proves this better when the two finally speak again, both nude in a sauna, with Trent Reznor’s sexy techno score pumping in the background. As they bicker, Gudganino lingers on their bodies, zooming in on sweat beads and thick, tennis-trained thighs. 

Gudganino knows what he’s working with—Zendaya, Faist and O’Connor in one film is a bounty of beauty and he’s eager to show it off. He never shies away from highlighting the beauty of his cast—we see Tashi in a silk slip, lotioning her legs, putting extra effort where the scar on her leg from her career-ruining injury remains. Gudganino pans across a locker room filled with naked tennis players—as Patrick flips through Tinder, mostly seeing women, until a man briefly appears on his screen. Gudganino ogles everyone’s muscular bodies, celebrating their sexiness and the sport. 

Speaking of the sport—Challengers is perhaps the sexiest movie of late without a ton of sex: there are steamy makeout sessions and post-coital conversations, but so much of the sexiness and bisexual energy of the film comes from the tension between the three, much of which is conveyed through tennis. In a scene when Tashi and Patrick are making out, foreplay for her is clearly talking about tennis, in particular, rightfully criticizing Patrick’s technique, which bothers him. And the same goes for Art: when they finally kiss in an Applebee’s parking lot, it’s after discussing the sport. 

So when Gudganino films the integral challengers match between Art and Patrick—it’s not just tennis—it’s watching their relationship play out—which is how Tashi describes her take on the game early in the film. With Tashi anxiously watching the two play, it’s as close to a threesome that the movie will give us. These three people are all clearly in love with one another and none of them can figure out how to express it. It shows in the ways that Gudganino films the match between Art and Patrick; it’s a game that only they can understand, and it’s a game that is fuelled by years of past resentments, love and sexual tension. 

It’s a testament to Gudganino’s continued excavation of the ways in which desire shapes us and how deeply he’s able to understand the very queer dynamic between the three of them, which is primarily shown through their tennis-playing. After seeing Challengers, there’s one question that remained, for me at least: Do I want to be them or fuck them?

Kerensa Cadenas (she/her) is a freelance journalist based in New York. She's previously held positions at Thrillist, The Cut, Entertainment Weekly and Complex. Her writing has been in GQ, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Elle, Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, Nylon and Vogue.

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