Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers throws more trysts and turns at a viewer than a decent thriller, as it serves up a love triangle set between a trio of tennis players, Patrick (Josh O’Connor), Art (Mike Faist) and, Tashi (Zendaya) against a wild card tennis match event in New Rochelle, NY.

The story, by Justin Kuritzkes, is full of the privileged and the athletic. Its characterizations are full of either extreme confidence or misplaced trust. Kuritzkes’ story lobs the balls of two friends, Art and Patrick, back and forth, interweaving the modern setting of the wild card match against flashbacks to the duo’s high school days. Of the two, Faist has the stronger performance as Art, but that doesn’t mean that O’Connor was less effective. Kuritzkes and Guadagnino were purposeful in their casting and the respective performances and characterizations – the oft-lobbed dominance demonstrates just how interconnected this pair is.

That is until Zendaya’s Tashi comes into the picture at Stanford. She knows she’s good, and Zendaya doesn’t hold anything back in the performance. You can feel Tashi’s pent-up frustration with Art’s and Patrick’s advances. Guadagnino paints a suggestive picture in Challengers, yet within its slightly overlong 131-minute run time, any suggestion is met with a pre-and post-conversation.

Sadly, this critic’s knowledge of tennis is limited. Instinctively, the characters are volleying for each other’s attention, then for Tashi’s, marked through painful tragedy and recovery. Challengers is, interestingly no one performer’s story. Kuritzkes’ story interlaces each of the characters into such a neatly twisted trio that discerning whose arc is the best formed is a challenge in itself. Challengers is probably the best story to teach someone about the game of tennis without actually paying a pro to do so (even as expensive as a ticket and concessions are today.)

And that’s Challengers’ challenge. The story becomes so involved that it runs the risk of losing its audience.

Notably, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s work here shines through brilliantly, especially on the court. Again, the suggestive nature through Guadagnino’s eyes is artfully done. It isn’t as tastefully done as with Call Me by Your Name, however here it serves a purpose between three emotionally stunted individuals trying to find their way.

It’s nearly as if their entire respective present and future hinge on finding the right advantage to break the lock and to be able to move on. Even when the story gets to that point, the competitiveness, strongly echoed through Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ riveting and ticking score rises above the occasion. This is another moment where, if the Academy were nominating 2024 films for sound design, Challengers would be in the running.

Amidst the trysts, Guadagnino has his eyes and our ears on breaking the tie between Patrick and Art. Zendaya certainly earns the attention she receives. O’Connor and Faist are intentionally juvenile enough that they can overcome their character’s obstacles. Will that combination be enough to draw an audience to the theater?

Challengers is anybody’s game, including the audience. It is a technically proficient story marked with an artful eye and solid performances. Its trysts are perhaps too intertwined for some audiences but is just right for this story.