An emotional ride with a soul.
First Match begins streaming on Netflix on March 30.
A coming of age story. That’s what I would liken First Match to. Monique, a troubled teen who spends years in foster care, turns to wrestling as a way of getting close to her father. The premise is familiar, if only by the idea that a sport is used to overcome some form of adversity. A 2018 Karate Kid if you will. That said, I would be remiss to leave my description at such a basic level…
The film opens with Monique’s clothes being tossed out of an apartment window. Accused of sleeping with her caretaker’s boyfriend, she’s being ousted in front of random bystanders. Bouncing from one foster home to another is nothing new though; after exchanging some choice words, Monique grabs what she can before departing in contempt. From here we witness a series of scenes that paint her current reality. Bad choices, a begrudged reunion, and a serious attitude problem. And that’s all before she bumps into her estranged father. Darrel, fresh out of jail, is working a part time gig in Brooklyn. It’s only by happenstance that he sees Monique. Their awkward meeting informs the viewer of a few facts. Namely that he doesn’t want to be a part of her life anymore and that Mo is desperate for her father.
Things progress rather quickly from here. In a bid to get Darrel’s attention, she joins the boy’s wrestling team at school. He was a state champ when he was younger and taught Mo most of what she knows of the sport. Emulating him renews their relationship in a positive way at first; he comes to her matches, gives her tips, basically acts like a proud father. Unfortunately, Darrel’s desire to better his life comes at the cost of Mo’s.
As we learn more about how Darrel ended up in jail, a measure of sympathy is extended his way; his failings as a father are understandable. It’s his actions after bonding with Mo that are the most condemning. He isn’t exactly a monster. Just weak. This contrasts with Monique’s character. She’s fearless. An embodiment of strength that is only made low by her desire to please Darrel. It takes a lot – her coach, friends, social workers – to get her to see that her downward spiral isn’t entirely her father’s fault. Not that anyone could blame her for her actions of course; she’s a young person who was dealt a messy hand. Still, it is up to her to decide how she wants the rest of her life to play out.
I’m obviously being vague here. The last thing I’d want to do is spoil how the events of First Match unfold. What I will say is that it is not as predictable you’d think. For instance, the wrestling is always secondary. Though is an important part of the story, it never becomes the thing to see. There’s no showdown with a rival or a real love interest. We barely even get the typical training montage. It’s all centered on how Mo maneuvers through the crazy. The result is an expertly paced drama, allowing each meaningful embrace or explosive exchange to be as impactful as possible. Writer and director Olivia Newman, does not waste a single second of screen time on anything even remotely trivial.
Everything happens for a reason. Stuff that doesn’t seem relevant for much of the film comes back in a significant way. Even the infrequently integrated soundtrack has meaning; the old school hip hop is tied to Monique on a personal level. Speaking of Mo, Elvire Emanuelle breathes life into this character. Her struggle to appease Darrel while she literally, wrestles with life is captivating thanks to Emanuelle’s amazing performance. She’s believable in every sense of the word. I was nervous right before her first wrestling match. Angry at her for making poor choices. Heartbroken when she is pushed to the edge. And elated when she finally starts moving in the right direction. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s portrayal of Darrel is just as sincere. By providing some nuance, he was able to make this bad father relatable. Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight) is another standout as Mo’s best friend Omari. Really, the entire cast portrayed their respective characters admirably.
First Match is more of a “coming to reality” film. Though the circumstances are unique to this story, it still properly conveys life amid turmoil resulting from certain societal ills. The depth of the well-written narrative, the superb acting, and the deliberate cinematography catapults it to the top of its respected genre on Netflix. Saying that I highly recommend its viewing would be a gross understatement!