From left, Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and...

From left, Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in "Challengers."  Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

PLOT Three ambitious young tennis pros form a love triangle.

CAST Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

RATED R (sexuality and language)


WHERE Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE Uneven but compelling, with stellar turns from its three stars.

“I don’t want to be a homewrecker,” Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) says in “Challengers.” A budding tennis star on her way to Stanford, Tashi isn’t addressing a married man but two boys — also aspiring pros — who are openly courting her at the same time. She’s being cheeky but serious: Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) have been friends since their preteen boarding school days, and Tashi is reluctant to come between them.

She does anyway, setting up a love triangle that blurs the lines between tennis, sex and success. It’s hard to say what turns Tashi on more: crushing an opponent or pulling two guys into a threesome. Either way, Art and Patrick seem to play their best when they’re also playing for her, though whether they’re seeking her affection or her competitive mojo is another question.

“Challengers” is an outlier in the sports genre: It isn’t based on a true story, it isn’t about underdogs and it isn't exactly inspirational. Written by Justin Kuritzkes, a playwright and novelist (this is his first feature film), “Challengers” is a tightly-packed labyrinth of mind games and power plays — more like Robert Towne’s “Personal Best” than, say, “Rocky.” And thanks to director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”), the movie feels anything but straightforward: It breaks time into shards, then into splinters, as the present becomes the past, then the further past and so on. Fortunes rise and fall dizzyingly: After Tashi’s career is ended by a blown-out knee, she dumps Patrick for Art and becomes his Lady Macbeth, pushing him to heights she can no longer reach.

Helping us keep pace are the movie’s three compelling stars. One is Faist, of “West Side Story,” who plays Art as a gifted but pampered athlete, prone to coasting unless Tashi revs up his fighting spirit. Another is O’Connor as Art’s mirror image, Patrick; though possibly the better player, Patrick is undisciplined and thoughtless, the kind of guy who shows up to a tournament without enough money for even a cheap motel. As Tashi, Zendaya (who also produced the film) bounces between the two others like, well, a tennis ball — though she’s the one deciding her trajectory. (A thumping synth-rock score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds to the overall energy, though it sometimes smothers the moment.)

“Challengers” culminates in a low-paying tournament in New Rochelle, but we know the stakes are high: Art’s confidence, Patrick’s future, Tashi’s heart (or whatever it is that’s beating inside her). Truth be told, it’s sometimes hard to fully care about these calculating characters, but they’re delightfully unpredictable and always entertaining. “Challengers” isn’t quite a golden set, but it certainly puts in the effort.

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