A while back, I ruminated on the downward trend of sex and nudity in cinema, and how characters in mainstream Hollywood keep getting increasingly chaste. But in spite of that, we’re seeing a number of up-and-coming actors who’ve skillfully navigated onscreen sex and nudity in the post-#MeToo era. Professional women who’ve built their brands on embracing their sexuality in empowering feminist ways, parlaying that strength into more compelling characters and bolder artistic statements.

I’ve already mentioned Sydney Sweeney and Dakota Johnson. I’d argue that Florence Pugh, Kristen Stewart, Mia Goth, Janelle Monae, Lily-Rose Depp, and Ana de Armas are all in the same class. There are arguments to be made for Jodie Comer and Elizabeth Moss as well. Lea Seydoux certainly fits the bill as well, but she’s French, and that almost feels like cheating.

Margot Robbie? Well, she hasn’t shown much skin since her eye-popping Wolf of Wall Street breakout, but she’s still known for playing characters with good healthy sex drives. Even in Barbie, she played a chaste and squeaky-clean character who had to ask what it meant to be those things and whether she really wanted that. I’d say she counts.

Jennifer Lawrence has done a fine job reclaiming her sex appeal and autonomy since the nude leaks of 2014, but not to the extent that it’s a central part of her brand quite yet. Emma Stone is certainly worthy of discussion since Poor Things, but let’s wait and see if she’ll go that hard for anyone other than Yorgos Lanthimos. Anya Taylor-Joy could go either way at this point.

What about male actors? Well, it’s common knowledge that portrayals of sex and nudity in media are nowhere near equal between the genders. Moreover, a positive, empowering example of male sexuality is something markedly different and surprisingly rare. The closest analogue I can think of at the moment would probably be… I dunno, John Cena? Maybe Timothee Chalamet or Jason Momoa? I’m on the fence about Jacob Elordi and Austin Butler — they typically play such sleazebag characters, it’s tough to consider either one empowering, but the potential is there and it’s still early days for the both of them.

But if we’re talking about mainstream celebrities who’ve fully embraced their sexuality onscreen, actors who wield their femininity and sex appeal like goddamn lightsabers, women who’ve built their careers and public images on playing empowered and intriguing characters who can run circles around every man within earshot, there’s one name that rises above all others right now: Zendaya.

When Zendaya takes a role, you know exactly what you’re getting. Attitude bursting out the four corners of the screen. Withering snark for days. Smoldering sex appeal with all the subtlety of a red-hot scalpel. This is the woman who turned Lola Bunny into a goddamn Amazon, whose Chani served as an intellectual and spiritual foil for the freaking Kwisatz Haderach, whose MJ was almost as proactive and iconic to the MCU Spider-Man films as the Webhead himself. And of course we can’t forget Malcolm & Marie, in which Zendaya spends the entire film practically naked, busting John David Washington’s balls down to the molecular level.

And now we have Challengers, in which Zendaya stars as the female lead in a Luca Guadagnino movie. As a reminder, that’s the same Luca Guadagnino of such erotically-charged movies as Call Me By Your Name and Bones and All. On paper, this is an explosive combination. In practice, this was a mind-blowing chain reaction like nothing I could’ve predicted.

First and foremost, the plot unfolds in non-sequential order, bouncing around between different time periods. This does, unfortunately, take some getting used to. In fact, the title cards are actively unhelpful, as it’s not always easy to tell “three days later” from which scene. On the other hand, this does make for some neat tension as something happens and we’re left to wonder what led up to that point.

(Side note: A title card makes a big show of pointing out that the plot culminates in 2019, artfully sidestepping the COVID lockdowns that might otherwise have thrown a massive wrench into the timeline.)

Regardless, if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve already seen the broad strokes of the backstory in sequential order. So let’s dive in with a quick recap, shall we?

Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig (respectively played by Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor) are two best friends who’ve been playing tennis together since they were twelve. Enter Tashi Duncan (Zendaya, also a producer), a smoking hot tennis prodigy and one of the few girls that both Art and Patrick have lusted over at the same time. She strings them along for a while, then puts a pin in their bedroom antics until after a big match between them — whichever one of them wins gets her phone number. I’m not telling here which of them wins.

Flash forward to a little while later, but not so far that they’ve graduated college yet. Long story short, Tashi takes a grievous knee injury and her career is likewise shattered. Elsewhere, Art keeps on succeeding at tennis while Patrick drops off the map. I don’t have time to get into details about why. What’s important is that Tashi signs on as Art’s coach/manager, eventually becoming his wife and the mother of his child in the bargain.

(Side note: Tashi’s exact words are “our daughter”. Given the timeline of events and whom she’s addressing in the moment, I’m quite intrigued by that particular wording.)

Flash forward a few years. Tashi and Art are a mega-famous power couple in the sports world, but Art is visibly losing his edge against opponents he should be crushing. As for Patrick, he’s dragging his perpetually broke ass to whatever tennis tournament will offer a cash prize. Art needs a win and Patrick needs a paycheck, thus the both of them take part in a podunk tennis matchup with a chump change grand prize.

Naturally, the both of them face off against each other in the finals, and we have our framing device for the movie. Just like that, we’re off to the races.

The plot may sound straightforward enough, but make no mistake, this movie is a labyrinth. Obviously, the non-chronological presentation means a lot of effort in sorting out the plot. But even that’s nowhere near as complicated as sorting out whatever the hell is going on with our three main characters.

Art and Patrick are relatively easy to figure out: They want to be rich and famous tennis stars, and they want to get their dicks wet. All well and good. That said, they’re looking for something much deeper from Tashi. They don’t just want her body, they want her respect. They want her appreciation. Tashi is so far above these boys in every possible way that they’d break themselves — and each other — in half if it meant she would recognize either one of them as a peer.

And it makes sense, because this is freaking Zendaya we’re talking about here. There’s nothing Zendaya does better, and there are precious few nowadays who can do it better than her.

Even after the injury happens and our guys are in their thirties, the calculus has only changed in small yet vital ways. Art still questions if Tashi will leave him when he isn’t winning or even playing at tennis anymore. Patrick still wonders if he can get Tashi back by winning on the court. Art has to ask if it’s better to retire while he’s still at his peak and he still has a few good years left to bring up his family, rather than keep on playing until he physically can’t anymore. Patrick has to decide whether his dreams of tennis superstardom are finally out of reach.

And where does Tashi fit into all of this? She’s had these boys wrapped around her finger for half their lives, so what is it she wants? That’s a great fucking question.

For better and for worse, Tashi is in the driver’s seat through pretty much the entire plot. With the one major exception of her knee injury, everything in the plot is either done directly by her or for her. So naturally, Tashi maintains control by keeping her cards close. Unfortunately, this means her motivations are often frustratingly opaque, which in turn makes for an unclear plot.

The good news is that Tashi’s motivations do become more clear as the plot unfolds. After all, it’s easy for Tashi to be aloof and dominant when she’s young and on top of the world and she’s got this big bright beautiful future ahead of her. But then her future career as a star tennis player gets shut down. She gets married. She has a daughter. By the time Art and Patrick are staring down the barrel of forced retirement and aging out of their dreams, Tashi has been living that reality for over a decade.

By necessity, Tashi had to grow up faster than either of them. And she consistently demonstrates that with every choice presented to her in the back half of the timeline. Time and again, we see that Tashi has taken on so many responsibilities and written off so many possibilities that she doesn’t have the luxury of indulging in so many fantasies or petty grudges as Art and Patrick.

That said, it’s still an open question as to what Tashi wants for Art and Patrick. It’s also unclear as to whether she’ll ever be able to completely abandon tennis or what she wants her future to look like.

From start to finish and at all points in between, there’s the omnipresent question of what Tashi wants, and to what extent she’s willing and able to use (or withhold) sex to get it. Then again, the question presupposes that Tashi herself knows what she wants, and that isn’t always clear. This tends to happen more often while Tashi is younger and more brash, but there are quite a few times throughout when Tashi seems to be acting on impulse, throwing Art and Patrick into dangerously unpredictable directions as a result. But even that’s not as destructive as when Art and Patrick try to deal with Tashi as if she’s still that same brash and impulsive young woman, and we’re right back to the rude awakening about how she’s had to grow up so much faster than those two can conceive.

There is no shortage of repartee between the three characters, and the filmmakers are not shy about coding these exchanges as tennis matches. It’s genuinely clever how the film opens with a thumping techno score over a tennis game, and then other tense conversations all through the movie have that similar pulsing score. Even better, some exchanges are shot by whip-pans between the characters, like we were following a tennis ball in play. In fact, there are one or two shots in the third act in which the ball is literally the camera and we’re getting bounced around between the players. I didn’t care for that, personally.

What’s much more impressive about the climax is the use of shorthand. By that point, we’ve spent so much time getting to know these characters inside and out that every gesture, every twitch, every expression carries volumes of information. Impressive as the tennis matches are, it’s flat-out astounding to watch the characters playing head games with each other.

Which brings me to the ending. After all, so much convoluted interpersonal drama doesn’t account for much if the filmmakers don’t stick the landing. Or does it?

At one point in the film, Tashi posits that in its highest and truest form, tennis is a relationship. It’s like a deep spiritual/emotional bond between the two players, and in those luckiest of games, you might get a brief moment in which the player and the opponent understand each other completely.

It follows that despite all the fame and fortune and pride on the line, winning is beside the point. What matters even more than that is the relationship. I won’t spoil exactly what happens at the end — to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I even know — but what ultimately matters is the relationship between these three characters. Ultimately, these three can’t live without each other because they can’t live without the game. And whatever else happens, one way or another, it’s a guaranteed certainty that the game between them will continue.

Challengers is a tough one to get a bead on. It’s certainly a good movie, superbly shot and edited. All three of the leads are on fire here, and Zendaya in particular has delivered the defining work of her career to date. Even so, the timeline is so contorted and the characters spend so much time trying to outmaneuver one another that it’s borderline impossible to get everything on first watch. I can’t guarantee that everything will hold up on the second or third watch.

The highest compliment I can pay this movie is that I’d happily give it a second viewing to see if it holds up. It’s a sexy and stylish, utterly ruthless movie well worth checking out on the big screen.

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