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Since it went into production, "Challengers" has been described as a movie about tennis and a threesome, but there is no threesome and it's not really about tennis.

It takes quite a while for the subject of the Luca Guadagnino ("Call Me by Your Name") drama to emerge, so I'm not going to give it away, but I will say that those who have seen "Y Tu Mamá También" have a head start. It focuses on three people who play competitive tennis: brilliant Tashi (Zendaya, in what's becoming her specialty: a woman who understands things on a deeper level than anyone else), natural athlete Patrick (Josh O'Connor) and hardworking Art (Mike Faist).

A few things that will hit you at the beginning of the stylish, tricky film are meant to make you ask questions about the choices being made.

It starts at a low-level match between Patrick and Art, with Tashi seemingly in control even though she's sitting in the stands; then, it flashes back and forth to illustrate how they got to this match. What's with the complicated timeline, which covers a dozen years? After the choral music that begins "Challengers," there are frequent blasts of intrusive, electronic dance music, especially in a scene that seems headed toward a ménage-à-trois. Blood Orange's "Uncle Ace" is playing, as if the characters are listening to it in a hotel room, but then it suddenly blares at us when Tashi makes a crucial decision. What's that about?

There's a sense that Guadagnino doesn't want us to get lost in the minimal plot, about the rivalry between the men, but to stay outside the movie, observing the characters as if they're not people but artifacts in an archaeological dig. Why?

The fun of "Challengers" will be that everyone who watches it will see something different — if you have a movie club that enjoys debate, it would be a great choice. Exploring the history that informs the playing-out of the initial tennis match is a really interesting idea; tennis superfans who watch a Wimbledon match always come to it knowing details about injuries and recent successes or failures that will help determine the outcome, and "Challengers" offers a sense of that.

It also wants us to see how the way the three play tennis (an injury prevented Tashi from a pro career) is indicative of their personalities, which are almost incestuously intertwined.

The three talk about sex while they're playing tennis and about tennis while they're having sex. In the same way that when songs mention dancing, it's usually a metaphor for sex, there's a sense here that tennis and sex are both being used to stand in for something rawer and more central to the way these characters behave. Just to underscore the obvious, the word "love" is central to tennis scoring.

I hope you're getting the sense that "Challengers" is a much bolder, more — sorry — challenging movie than it appears to be. There are some racy scenes, but moviegoers hoping for the kind of sexy romance that Hollywood rarely gives us anymore may be disappointed.

Tennis fans might be, too, although all three leads play believably. But if you like a movie that takes bold swings, it may be for you.


*** out of 4 stars

Rated: R for very strong language, graphic nudity and sex.

Where: In theaters.