Zendaya’s latest is being touted as “one of the sexiest movies ever made.” Is it?

Zendaya’s latest is being touted as “one of the sexiest movies ever made.” Is it?

In Sex Reviews, writers offer a sober critical assessment of the sex scenes in new films. This installment contains spoilers for Challengers.

Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers follows two best friends turned foes—Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor)—as they play out their long-simmering competition not only to be the better professional tennis player but to get the girl they’re both after, former teen phenom Tashi (Zendaya). Of course, they compete in the only way they know how: a tennis match—or, rather, a handful of tennis matches over the course of the film’s sprawling 13-year timeline. But it isn’t just the sweat, the glistening bodies, and the grunts that have fans calling it the hottest film of the year. Instead, it’s that, on Guadagnino’s court, everyone wants to have sex with everyone all the time.

The audience will want in on the action too, as Challengers makes sure to serve up a variety of desirable types. There’s the blond, spindly boy-next-door type in Faist, who first caught our attention in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. There’s the hairier, grittier, sleazeball type in O’Connor, a Brit who’s previously been much less sexy on the small screen as The Crown’s Prince Charles. Then, of course, there’s everyone’s type in Hollywood’s darling, Zendaya, the film’s producer and star. The trailers—set to Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater” and Rihanna’s “S&M”—make no attempt to hide the movie’s lascivious appeal. But is it all hype, or has the director of Call Me by Your Name done it again? Below, your Sex Reviews correspondents hash it out.

Three’s a Party

Close-up of Zendaya, sitting on a bed with a come-hither stare.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Madeline Ducharme: We’ll kick off this sex review with the long-teased, much anticipated, gloriously bisexual threesome. At this point, we’ve known that this scene was coming for nearly a year, which is a lot of buildup for any sexual encounter. The WGA and SAG strikes of last summer forced us to wait six (!) additional months to lay our eyes on Faist, O’Connor, and Zendaya in bed together. And throughout those long, long nights, we’ve had to ponder an excruciating question: Will Z’s steely Tashi Duncan have those two gangly boys kiss each other in that nasty motel room they’re sharing? The answer: a resounding YES.

But let’s discuss the foreplay that prefaces this make-out. Teenage tennis prodigy Tashi is the belle of the ball at a beachside celebration of her collab with Adidas. She shimmies and soaks in the warm summer night in a striking blue strapless dress. Art and Patrick, egged on by each other to approach “the hottest woman” they’ve ever seen, are enamored of the teenage tennis prodigy. She knows they’re obsessed and allows the two of them to shower her in praise—and even mansplain their career prospects while a sultry piano score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross accompanies the crashing waves.

The boys, armed with audacity and lukewarm beer, offer up their suite to “keep talking” with Tashi “about … tennis.” She asserts that she’s “not a homewrecker,” and it seems the dream of one life-changing night with Tashi Duncan is dead for the doubles duo known as “Fire and Ice.”

Nadira Goffe: The thing about young Tashi is that she’s got trickster written all over her: She knows she has these boys wrapped around her finger from the minute they stumble over their introduction, she knows that her swaying in the moonlight is essentially a siren song, and even as they mansplain their prospects to her, she knows the negging power of her retort that they actually “don’t know what tennis is.” Regardless of whether she means it, when she says that she’s not a “homewrecker,” we get the sense that maybe she wants to be. So, when she does end up knocking on the boys’ motel room door, we aren’t surprised. But the boys, who scramble in a few seconds to tidy up their dingy living quarters, certainly are.

They then start to drink the shitty beer the boys have on offer as Tashi asks about their friendship. It’s unclear whether Tashi thinks all besties have fooled around before or if she’s reading into some homoerotic vibes from these two in particular (really, who isn’t), but she specifically asks if Art and Patrick have ever played together off the court. When Patrick reveals that he taught Art how to jerk off, an amused Tashi, who seems to get off on the manipulation, invites them both onto the singular king-size bed. Tashi leads the three of them into the first very hot make-out sesh (of many) in the movie, but as she builds the rhythm of switching between who’s kissing whom and where, she gradually lessens her involvement until Patrick and Art are, unknowingly, making out only with each other. Satisfied (she’s #TeamArtRick), Tashi leans back and admires her handiwork, while she flashes a devilish Kubrick stare.

I’m devastated to say that the scene practically ends there: When Art and Patrick realize the ruse and pull away from each other, Tashi abruptly leaves. She might as well have said “Welp, that’s a job well done!” on her way out. Sure, it’s sad that there isn’t more to the scene, but if Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist want to take it a step further in another movie, I wouldn’t say no. In addition to simply enjoying some Very Hot Kissing™, I find the complex dynamic between the two friends—always competing but genuinely interested in each other as humans … and maybe more—to be somewhat intoxicating.

Extracurricular Activities

Josh O'Connor and Zendaya make out on a dorm-room bed.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Madeline: On behalf of all the #ArtRick shippers out there (myself among them), I’d like to also voice my support for Faist and O’Connor going all the way in a future flick.

For what it’s worth, though, the homoeroticism between this pair remains a constant drumbeat throughout Challengers. Whether Patrick’s teasing his opponent with a banana from the opposite side of the court, yanking Art’s chair closer to him while they share a college cafeteria churro, or holding lingering eye contact in a too-small sauna, Josh O’Connor’s performance has firmly inducted this scuzzy slimeball into my pantheon of recent bisexual male heartthrobs. What is a love triangle, after all, if not a way to build more sexual tension with your closest lifelong frenemy?

Before she leaves the motel room, teen Tashi declares that whoever wins the #ArtRick tennis match the following morning will earn her number. (From Tashi’s perspective, the most seductive thing anyone can be is a winner.) The less focused—though perhaps more naturally gifted—Patrick claims victory. Months pass, and even though Tashi is enrolled at Stanford University (with Art, no less!), she remains romantically entangled with Patrick. He boasts to Art: “I think she’s making me an honest man.”

Patrick, proving his devotion, even visits her, finding time between her academic pursuits and his professional career for a rendezvous in her freshman dorm. (She miraculously has a larger bed than the typical twin-size misery American college students are subjected to.)

Under a bookshelf containing another indelible M-M-F triad (Twilight), these two are hungry for each other. He undresses her while she straddles his torso. Their dry-humping is fast, eager, and so very college. That is, until Tashi, in the middle of smushing faces, starts offering some tips on Patrick’s tennis game.

Nadira: Thank you for pointing out when Patrick uses his leg to pull Art’s chair closer to him while they’re eating churros, because it’s those infinitesimal moments of intimacy that always sell stories of attraction for me. It is pretty clear that, despite Tashi definitely coming in to break any sort of “Bros before hoes” code, Patrick and Art do actually love being in each other’s company. And as someone who is on the record as loving friendship, especially the ones that flirt at being more, I could watch these two banter, break up, kiss, and make up all day.

Speaking of kissing and breaking up: Tashi and Patrick. Like you said, the only quality Tashi seems to find sexy is winning, and the only thing she cares about is winning at tennis. So, naturally, she doesn’t respond well when, precoitus, Patrick seems to care more about getting her sports bra off than hearing someone, a woman at that, critique his game. Though, in Patrick’s defense, if someone started critiquing my performance in my profession during foreplay—“You know, you really didn’t need that fourth paragraph …”—I would be out the door faster than you could say “kill fee.” Time and place, Tashi! So, Patrick and Tashi get into a huge fight and break up before her match later that day.

This is also the point in the movie where my theory that Zendaya has a “no nudity” clause in her contract proves even more likely to be true. (You go, girl!) The couple’s argument disrupts the flow of things before she manages to take her underwear off, a recurring theme throughout the film. Still, hats off to Zendaya and O’Connor for proving that they don’t have to take their clothes off to have a good time, by giving us more very steamy (and yes, very college) snogging.

Madeline: That breakup is rough. Her extremely competitive nature makes her ruthless not only on the court but in the bedroom. She’s quick to transform an erotic, vulnerable moment into an opportunity to denigrate her paramour for not taking her sports advice seriously. As quick as a ball flies back and forth across the net, Tashi shifts from sucking face with Patrick to quipping, “How’s coasting by on talent treating you?”

Tashi doesn’t crave typical affection. She says as much to Art in another college-era scene: “What makes you think I want someone to be in love with me?” Tashi, even just shy of her 20s, is a woman of ambition, business acumen, and—most of all—athletic standards. What she really wants is someone to kowtow to her demands.

Raising the Stakes

Zendaya and Mike Faist, their characters now fully adults, make out in a bed.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Nadira: Challengers flip-flops through different moments in time as we learn more about why the present-day U.S. Open qualifying match between Art and Patrick is so emotionally charged. So, it’s not entirely bizarre that the next sex(-ish) scene we get takes place years after Tashi and Patrick’s dorm-room breakup. During the time jump, Tashi suffers an injury that sidelines her to coaching, which in turn leads to a professional and romantic relationship with Art. Art’s tennis success, likely due to Tashi’s tutelage, has made him famous, and when we catch up with the couple 13 years after their first romantic dalliances, they have since gotten married, had a kid, and become both rich and unhappy.

If Patrick is a talented but lazy sleaze, Art is a pathetic sweetheart. Present-day Tashi wants Art, whose career is in a slump, to go for another grand slam, but she’s frustrated and turned off by his lack of motivation and self-confidence. The night before the big challenger match between Art and Patrick, Tashi is getting ready for bed in their fancy hotel room (a noticeable upgrade from the dank lodgings of Art and Tashi’s first sexual encounter), while slinking around in the silkiest pajamas and moisturizing the knee scar that symbolizes the end of her career. Art tells Tashi that he wants to make his way toward retirement, but Tashi offers little comfort in response. And when Art seeks some assurance that Tashi will still love him if he’s no longer a hotshot, Tashi has none to give. Art asks, point-blank, if she will leave him if he loses to Patrick tomorrow—and our coldhearted Tashi says yes.

Challengers purposefully makes it unclear whether Art and Tashi actually love each other. I mean, the entire beginning of the film shows the two interacting but abstaining from saying more than a few words to each other for what is implied to be hours on end. Here, it’s all but confirmed that the only thing Tashi found desirable about Art was the fact that he was winning at the time that they reconnected. Still, after Tashi says she’d leave Art if he lost to his former best friend, they still engage in some heavy petting on the bed. How did you read this scene, Madeline?

Madeline: My biggest takeaway from it was that cruelty is an aphrodisiac for Tashi! He questions whether she could love him no matter what, and her response is “I’m not a nun and I’m not your mommy.” That sounds brutal—and it is—but it’s essential to understand that Tashi considers her connection to her husband (at least at the time of the titular challenger match) as a conduit for the wins she never claimed for herself.

She is so full of resentment about her bum knee and her missed chances that her husband throwing in the towel is a massive betrayal. She was already less interested in him after his multiple losses on the road to the U.S. Open, and now this declaration has flipped the power dynamic of their partnership. The only thing that’ll give her the upper hand again is to relish the nastiness of this moment.

Art and Tashi’s final sexual encounter is also a kind of pitiful farewell to their marriage. We in the audience know that Patrick—washed up, essentially homeless, former star that he is—is waiting in the wings for Tashi to be his coach. What we don’t realize is how soon after this goodbye Tashi will reconnect carnally with him, on a comically blustery night.

Nadira: What’s so funny to me is that the whole aborted, soft-core encounter seems to be entirely of Art’s desire. Zendaya is just looking blankly out into the distance, as if she’s doing what she needs to do to soothe a child to get them to stop crying. While he is initiating something that he hopes will reassure him, she’s thinking about what a potential future with Patrick could be. In the words of Megan Thee Stallion, that is some real hot girl shit. Ouch, man.

Tashi Knocks the Wind Out of Us

Zendaya and Josh O'Connor make out at night in a car.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Nadira: After her disappointing conversation with Art, Tashi sneaks out of the hotel room in the middle of the night, while a major storm is brewing, to meet up with Patrick, who had slipped her his number earlier on in the hopes that he could convince Tashi to coach him. But before we get to the windy scene between Tashi and Patrick, we’ve gotta talk about present-day Patrick being firmly in his dirtbag era. He’s sleeping in his car, scrolling through all genders on dating apps to find a place to crash via one-night stands, and asking for an advance on prize money for competing. However, though the circumstances of his life are deeply pathetic, he somehow seems less so than Art does. This is because it’s clear that Patrick will always have the advantage when it comes to enticing Tashi. The two former buddies even have a tense conversation in the sauna (before Art comes home and says he wants to retire) that’s full of “You know she’d still fuck me” subtext from Patrick, who’s literally swaggering about with his dick out. Though Art boasts about his career, those jabs aren’t as strong as the palpable fear that Patrick could be right.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the video of the interviewer from ETalkCTV telling Zendaya “Tashi Duncan ain’t shit,” but you should because he’s right. Tashi braves the elements for an assignation in Patrick’s car, proving Patrick right about her lack of faith in her husband, even as Tashi claims she’s there only to do whatever it takes to persuade him to throw the match. Patrick’s smugness and Tashi’s no-BS nature leads, of course, to a massive argument before Tashi gets out of the car to leave. But she doesn’t leave. Instead, they continue to argue, which leads to Tashi spitting in Patrick’s face. But then! Because they’re entertainingly awful human beings, the world goes still as they turn to each other, the wind whipping their hair around, a funky frame rate making everything feel as if time is skipping on a scratched DVD, and some lurid red lighting leaving their faces awash in the sin they are most definitely about to commit. And sin they do, when they start sucking face as—not to put too fine a point on it—a twister of trash swirls around them. (Again, for the record, this is moments after Tashi spits in his face.)

Madeline: Tashi hocking that loogie is just more proof that disrespect is a form of foreplay for our wild and messy friend!

This illicit parking-lot encounter is both shocking and utterly inevitable. We feel a kind of heat between Tashi and Patrick that was absent between Tashi and her hubby in the scene immediately before. They grab hold of each other, Patrick grasping her neck and head with both hands, Tashi clasping onto his forearm. The physicality of the scene is so intense it almost feels like a wrestling match.

They eventually find their way into the back seat of his car—the same dirty vehicle he’s found a temporary home in. It’s a setting that’s somehow even more youthful than the tournament-funded motel room or Tashi’s Stanford dorm. Tashi’s still so stunted by her career-ending injury it only makes sense that she’d find forbidden romance in such a high school setting. But in high school she is not! The particular gut-punch of Tashi returning from this tryst to find Art fast asleep with their young daughter has really stuck with me.

The Verdict

Madeline: We’ve reached the part of Sex Reviews where we ask ourselves: On a scale of 1 to 10, how horny did this make us? Nadira, do you think that Challengers ultimately lived up to the marketing campaign’s assertion that it’s “one of the sexiest movies ever made”?

Nadira: Look, this movie is hot, but it’s not even the sexiest movie without any real sex in it. (That, my friend, is In the Mood for Love.) And there are so many contenders in that category: I’m still chasing the high of watching Tampopo’s egg yolk scene and Stoker’s piano scene for the first time. There’s something these movies understand about the ineffable sexiness of mere closeness that Challengers doesn’t fully lean into. So, when it comes to besting its predecessors, Guadagnino’s efforts are stellar but not necessarily superlative.

With that being said, it might be the sexiest thing I’ve seen from the director. Call Me by Your Name was beautiful, and, yes, Timothée Chalamet fucked a peach in it, but I would say it didn’t make me horny so much as contemplative about the beauty of love. Challengers has some very, very hot smooching with some incredibly attractive leads that you just can’t help but watch. It also continues the Josh O’Connor Portrays Dirtbags agenda (paging La Chimera), and for that I am very grateful. I’m giving Challengers a 6.

Madeline: Asserting Challengers as sexier than Call Me by Your Name be careful, Nadira! Those are fighting words (at least among us who still find our brains drifting back to that first Elio-Oliver make-out in the field).

I do think I agree that Challengers could’ve leaned a little harder into its own erotic power. With a cast like these three, the potential for white-hot sex scenes was very high. There’s never a truly visceral sensual moment in this film, unlike one less-mentioned scene in Call Me by Your Name where the sex is long over but the proof of it remains smeared across an actor’s hairy chest. Que sera, sera. Challengers still earns a 7 in my book, if only for the gorgeous ways the athletic body remains on display, even outside the almost-sex scenes. Josh O’Connor, congratulations on your thighs.

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