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Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor find love more difficult to play than tennis in Challengers. Courtesy Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios

The astronomy guys have this thing called the three-body problem, which you may have heard of lately because it gave its name to a prize-winning Chinese science-fiction novel and now a Netflix adaptation of the same. The three-body problem is built on the idea of three celestial bodies like our Earth, sun, and moon, except all of them are roughly the same size. When that happens, what is orbiting what? I thought about that concept while watching Challengers, Luca Guadagnino’s sports drama depicting three tennis professionals whose romantic entanglements are constantly shifting. Even though the cast is young, this is the sort of grown-up movie that they supposedly don’t make anymore.

The framing story takes place in the summer of 2019 at the finals of a challenger tournament in upstate New York, contested by Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). While Patrick is ranked 271st in the world and has $70 in his bank account, Art is a six-time Grand Slam winner playing himself back into shape after a major injury. Looking on is Art’s wife and coach, Tashi Duncan Donaldson (Zendaya), and the movie flashes back to 2006 when she’s a teen sensation who crushes opponents like the next Serena Williams. That’s when she meets both Art and Patrick, who are friends from the same tennis academy, doubles partners, and opponents in the finals of the U.S. Open juniors. The boys are both smitten with her, but while she starts out dating the charming and shiftless Patrick, she gravitates to the steadier Art after blowing out her knee before she even turns pro.

If you haven’t been paying close attention and haven’t seen Euphoria, you might think Zendaya is nothing more than some clothes horse who strikes poses in the Spider-Man and Dune films. Granted, that’s pretty much what she did in the first Dune movie, but she crushed it in the second one. Here she goes from the cocksure junior champion who twists boys around her fingers to the coach who’s more uncertain as her life on the sidelines goes on. (The script by Justin Kuritzkes gives all the actors clever lines to work with.) During a late scene when Art tells her he sees the end of his career at hand, she looks terribly sad as she’s torn between the guy she molded into a champion and the guy she couldn’t mold and still carries a torch for her. She is downright stellar in a late scene where Tashi tells Patrick that he’s too old to still be living out of his car just to flame out in the second round of Wimbledon.

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Guadagnino isn’t afraid of the melodrama in this setup, as a scene between Tashi and Patrick takes place in a gale-force windstorm. Even better is the director’s infectious joy in filming bodies in motion. The same kineticism he brought to the female dancers in his Suspiria remake he brings here as he takes in the sweat pouring off the tennis players, their muscles straining to serve and skidding to a stop in front of the net to return drop shots. A climactic point in the match has the camera attached to the ball as Art and Patrick fire it back and forth. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom conceive all sorts of creative camera angles, including one under the players’ feet looking up through a glass pane. The sport of tennis has never been filmed in such ecstatic terms, and if you’re a tennis fan, that’s recommendation enough.

Guadagnino’s homoeroticism is also in evidence here, as Tashi coaxes the guys into a three-way during their teen years and then slips out of it to turn it into a two-way. (For all the sexuality dripping from this movie, there are no actual sex scenes, and the men are the ones who get naked here.) The movie ends with the outcome of the match still in doubt, as Art and Patrick play a point in a third-set tiebreaker that forces both of them to play beyond themselves and transcend their limitations. Tashi’s scream of “Come on!” is the perfect punctuation mark. We still don’t know who’s orbiting whom when Challengers ends, but a bit like that earns this film its spot at center court.

Challengers
Starring Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by Justin Kuritzkes. Rated R.

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