In Challengers, Zendaya’s Unapologetically Ambitious Character Changes the Love Triangle Game

This story contains spoilers for Challengers. If you haven’t had a chance to watch yet, check out our spoiler free review.

Love triangles are a trope as old as time, but Challengers’ central entanglement offers a new spin on the cliche. We still get two boys trying to one-up each other for the attention of a girl, but she’s not looking for the best one to fulfill a white-picket fence fantasy. Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan wants greatness. She demands it of herself and from those who wish to be in her company. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Luca Guadagnino film is more about Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art’s (Mike Faist) relationship with each other than it is about their relationship with Tashi, but the dynamic works because Tashi doesn’t love either of them. She loves tennis. And it is that love that drives all three of them to the emotional connection they seek.

The movie bounces between timelines, following the trio through college and into their professional careers, examining their shifting power dynamics as Patrick and Art face off in the adult timeline for their shot at competing in the U.S. Open. It’s so refreshing to see a female character, especially at the center of a romantic movie, whose primary drive isn’t finding a husband and starting a family. Tashi is never coy about what drives her. Art and Patrick are just too distracted by their own dreams and desires for her to listen to what she’s saying.

She spells it out for them after the duo sequesters her on a beach after her junior tournament win celebration early on in the film. “You don’t know what tennis is,” she informs the boys, “It’s a relationship.” She goes on to explain how her match earlier was like being in love and that she and her opponent “went somewhere beautiful together.” The high of a perfect volley is what Tashi is chasing, while Art and Patrick spend the movie attempting to replace that rush for her.

Patrick thinks he’s the early winner when he defeats Art in their own junior championship final the day after the beach party and gets Tashi’s number but, the thing is, Tashi’s attraction to Art at that point in the film has nothing to do with how he feels about her. She instantly admonishes him when she realizes he’s trying to manipulate her—”What makes you think I want someone to be in love with me?”—but Art has been putting in the work to be a better tennis player while Patrick cruises at the bottom of the rankings on the pro circuit. That’s why Tashi entertains Art’s antics. When Patrick asks to stop talking about tennis, Tashi loses interest and their relationship instantly implodes. A few hours later, she tears her knee and Art is there to dry her tears and pick up the pieces of her broken heart.

With her personal aspirations destroyed, Tashi pivots to coaching. She can’t be far from the game. Patrick temporarily fades into the background and Art steps up to be the engine for Tashi’s new dream. He realizes that positioning himself as the better boyfriend isn’t the move, so he swears he’ll be the better tennis player. This is the moment where Art seems to understand Tashi the most, but it is also his downfall.

Art’s tactic does work for a while. He and Tashi get married and have a kid. They have a foundation and lots of money. He became a very good pro tennis player, almost great, even, but he grows tired and ultimately wants to quit before his promise to Tashi to reach her dream is fulfilled. When Tashi realizes he’s giving up, her affection wanes.

Challengers isn’t a movie for people with a weak stomach for infidelity. If this movie were about either Patrick or Art finding love with Tashi, then maybe it would matter more how she bounces between the two. But there’s a reason that you see the moment she agrees to coach Art but you never see footage of their wedding. Art resents that Tashi doesn’t find their marital life enough, but Tashi never wants to be the prize. Her mission throughout the entire film is to get either of these men to want greatness for themselves.

She breaks up with Patrick in the first half of the movie because he doesn’t want to talk about tennis and she sees him as an unserious person. She cheats on Art when he announces he wants to quit the game before winning the open, but even the infidelity is about getting Patrick to lose the match against Art so Tashi doesn’t have to see her dream deferred yet again. She isn’t interested in either of them when they don’t respect her love, and her love is being great at the game.

Many people may accuse Tashi of being unlikable because she’s not reciprocating the affection of these men but, in truth, she’s playing them the same way they are playing her. While she may not be in love with them, she does still care for them. She makes sacrifices for them, especially Art; she encourages them; she inspires them. They are just not able to give her what she truly craves in return, and that frustration grows into resentment for everyone involved.

Challengers Gallery

Each of these relationships comes with conditions. Patrick and Art both love Tashi as long as she makes them shine or feel better about themselves; Tashi loves them as long as they are putting in the effort to be the best after she loses the thing she loves most when she injures her knee. Both Art and Patrick volunteer to be the new vessel for her dream at different parts of the movie, and when they fail to be that for her, she doesn’t just see them as disrespectful, she sees them as impotent. In the end, they are all using each other for their own gains. What’s so special about Challengers is that no one, even Tashi, gets punished for it. In fact, they are all rewarded in the closing moments of the film.

We are so used to movies that prioritize functional relationships as the end goal. The destination in Challengers is a perfect tennis volley, but it’s a metaphor for pushing yourself beyond your limits. When you commit to something wholeheartedly, you can become something greater than yourself. This is a trio of messy, flawed characters but even they can find magic when they drop their pretenses and put their bare souls on the line. It’s actually inspiring to think any of us messy, flawed, beings can achieve real connection when we ditch fear and resentment and just hit the damn ball.

The climax of the film takes place at the final for the challengers tournament, culminating in Patrick and Art in competition for a spot in the U.S. Open. By the time they reach match point, Art knows that Patrick and Tashi slept together the night before and Patrick knows that Tashi isn’t going to leave Art for him. And none of it matters. It’s here that Guadagnino shows his visionary style as a director.

This final sequence is tense and hypnotic as Art and Patrick swat the ball back and forth. It’s a symphony of grunts, sneaker squeaks on asphalt, and the hollow pang of a rubber tennis ball making contact with a racquet. It’s sweaty but also sexy as Art and Patrick finally reach the level of tennis that Tashi waxed poetic about on the beach years prior. They understand each other completely, and so does everyone watching. It’s like they’re in love, or like they don’t exist. They go somewhere really beautiful together. Art comes to the net and jumps for the final hit, slams the ball, and collapses into Patrick’s arms.

They embrace in the euphoria of the moment. We don’t even see who wins the match, because at this point in the story, that’s not what’s important. This is the first time that Art and Patrick understand what Tashi has been chasing since they’ve known her. The resentment and passive aggression of the past ten years melted in the volley and the former best friends were able to connect in a way they never had before. They never would have reached that moment with another opponent, and they never would have allowed themselves to go there if it wasn’t for Tashi pushing both of them. They were finally able to fulfill their promise to her, and everyone wins.

Challengers is now playing in theaters.

This post was originally published on IGN

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