Against the field of all narrative films at this year’s recently concluded SXSW, Netflix’s small but worthwhile First Match emerged as the winner of the Audience Award competition. That seems appropriate since this engaging film about a largely abandoned young African American girl who joins the boys wrestling team at her Brooklyn high school is about someone who triumphs against all odds. But as I say in my video review above, it doesn’t follow the typical pattern of most underdog Hollywood sports movies, and we are the better for it.
At its heart it really is a father-daughter story, but also not typical in that family genre. Based on writer-director Olivia Newman’s 2011 short film, the first-time feature helmer has expanded it and gone much deeper into the world of her lead character Monique (Elvire Emanuelle). When we first meet her she is being tossed out once again from one of the many foster homes to which she has drifted during her young, troubled life. We soon see why when she and her only friend Omari (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome) run into her father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who, as it turns out, has just gotten out of prison but neglected to tell his daughter. Trying to find a way back into his life, she decides to follow in his footsteps when he was a promising young wrestling champion. She joins her high school’s wrestling team — but not the girls’ team. There she finds her natural talent for boxing (seen earlier) is actually a plus in beating and outmaneuvering most of the male wrestlers.
Monique begins to find self worth, which takes a bad turn when Darrel decides to exploit her talents instead with cage fighting other women, a violent act Newman captures without flinching at the bloodletting involved. A new friend Malik (Jared Kemp) eventually helps her out of this hole and back to the high school team, where the beginning of a future she never really could foresee comes into play. Some of that is due to the inspirational coach played beautifully by Colman Domingo. The core of the film though is not in the rings, but rather with the sad state of Monique’s relationship with a father who just can’t come to realize the value of the gifted human being he helped bring into the world and — as so often happens in cases like this — simply abandoned her until it suited his own needs.
Abdul-Mateen ll is excellent in the role of this self-serving, ill-equipped parent, but this movie belongs to Emanuelle, who is clearly a star in the making. Her athletic prowess is impressive, but not nearly as much as what she is able to bring to the heartbreaking world of Monique. There is hope here but it isn’t laid on thick, and Newman’s scenario never follows a predictable or cloying path. Also admirable is the diversity on display in this production made up largely of a female crew including excellent camera work from Ashley Connor.
Netflix, which is releasing 90 films this year alone, opened it over the weekend in limited theatrical play to accompany its launch on the network, and it is worth finding on a service that runs the risk of having too much product to weed through. Hopefully, this worthy movie doesn’t get lost in the queue. Producers are Bryan Unkeless, Veronica Nickel and Chanelle Elaine.
Do you plan to see First Match? Let us know what you think.
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