'First Match': Film Review

A gritty, character-centric sports tale.

Following its SXSW debut, Olivia Newman's wrestling-mat coming-of-age tale heads to Netflix.

A teenager in still-ungentrified Brooklyn finds an unlikely way of connecting to her ex-con father in Olivia Newman's First Match: Having learned her dad's wrestling moves as a kid, she muscles her way onto her school's all-male team and proves she's made of the same stuff. Built around an impressive performance by relative newcomer Elvire Emanuelle, the drama recalls Karyn Kusama's Girlfight, though in that case the parental dynamics ran the opposite direction. The feature debut, an outgrowth of Newman's 2010 short of the same name, took home SXSW's Audience Award; with that and the Grand Jury Award given to Jim Cummings' Thunder Road, this was a good year for directors expanding shorts into features.

Emanuelle plays Mo (Monique), who's essentially an orphan since Dad (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's Darrel) went to prison — and, as the movie starts, is newly homeless as well, as she's being thrown out of her latest foster home by a woman who caught Mo sleeping with her boyfriend. Shuffled into another foster situation, Mo doesn't even bother learning her new host's name: Lucila (Kim Ramirez) is just "Spanish Lady" in Mo's phone, and the girl wastes no time finding earrings to steal in Lucila's dresser.

Mo is blowing off steam with longtime friend Omari (Jharrel Jerome) when she bumps into Darrel on the street. She didn't know he was out of jail, and from his unease, it's not clear whether he was hoping she wouldn't find out or is simply ashamed that she's caught him doing grimy work for a fast-food joint. When she tries to exchange contact info and make plans to get together, he sidesteps: "You do your thing, I'll do mine."

But Mo engineers further "accidental" encounters. At one point, in a seemingly improvised attempt to hold his attention, she claims to have joined the wrestling team. It's a lie, but Darrel's high school wrestling fame is the only thing he's proud of, and she instinctively wants to align herself with that. She sets out to make the lie true, then to get Darrel to come see her fight.

First Match is not as invested in its scenario's gender-prejudice factor as Girlfight was, but for a short time — until Mo's talent wins skeptics over — it ably exploits the awkwardness. Boys don't want to grapple with her in training; Darrel will later note that there "isn’t nothin' in it for a dude" to fight a girl, as he'll look bad whether he beats her or loses. She has to convince a reluctant coach (Colman Domingo) that she's serious. And of course she has to remake herself physically: ditching the hair extensions in favor of tight braids; tossing the fake nails and hoop earrings; binding her chest. Newman is probably smart to let these concerns fade as the script introduces more dramatic ones, but Emanuelle's shifts in body language and demeanor make Mo's navigation of all this compelling.

Given a handful of fine performances, it's pretty easy to overlook the familiarity of the sports-drama beats to come. Abdul-Mateen is especially good at finding sympathy for a man who, however much he winds up enjoying bonding with Mo over her new hobby, doesn't know what to do with her trust, and winds up trying to tie her to his own pipe dreams of quick money and a business that will support them. It's hard to watch Mo as she realizes she can't count on him. But as a male teammate points out, in this neighborhood, having a father that comes to even some matches is nothing to take for granted.

Speaking of those harsh realities of life in Brownsville, a famously impoverished part of east Brooklyn: In a year when festivals and filmmakers seem more serious than ever (and still, probably not serious enough) about getting more women behind movie cameras, it would be strange not to note that this story about black people was written and directed by a white woman. Newman has spoken in interviews about how important it was to have women in key creative positions on the film, and told one interviewer: "This is the story of a young woman, and she goes through a lot of deep, emotional experiences, and I really wanted it to be directed and shot through a female lens." But when it comes to race, she doesn't feel those rules of representation apply — evidently concluding, not unreasonably, that sincerity and research (and the advice of black collaborators) are enough to let her imagine a black girl's coming of age. Her film is heartfelt, and it does capture nuances that would elude many male filmmakers. But to whatever extent it succeeds, it's an argument that empathy counts more than identity in choosing who gets to tell whose stories.

Production companies: Clubhouse Pictures, CreativeBionics
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo, Jharrel Jerome, Jared Kemp
Director-screenwriter: Olivia Newman
Producers: Chanelle Elaine, Veronica Nickel, Bryan Unkeless
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editor: Tamara Meem
Composer: Olivier Alary
Casting directors: Jodi Angstreich, Maribeth Fox

102 minutes