The premise of “First Match,” lamentably, is an all-too-believable one. Fifteen-year-old Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), a foster kid in ungentrified Brooklyn, makes impulsive mistake after impulsive mistake until she ends up getting beaten up and bloody for money.
When we meet her, she’s in the process of being kicked out of her latest home for sleeping with her foster dad. Craving the approval of her own father, the just-paroled Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “The Get Down”), Monique joins the wrestling team in a bid for his affection. Seeing his own athletic potential flickering in his daughter, Darrel decides to cash in on her talent by pushing her into underground fighting, where he can bet on her in the way that comes most naturally to him.
Written and directed by first-timer Olivia Newman, this Netflix coming-of-age melodrama is dogged by a faint but lingering whiff of poverty porn. The film also has much to praise about it: a fantastic lead performance by Emanuelle, gleamingly naturalistic cinematography (by Ashley Connor, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”), and smart insights into the tolls of instability, especially for teenage girls and young women.
Monique is eagle-eyed, too, which makes the acidity of her frequent outbursts that much more caustic when they’re aimed at her sole pal Omari (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight”), a second foster mother (Kim Ramirez), and others trying their best to help her.
According to the press notes, “First Match” was born from Newman’s observations of girl wrestlers in the NYC area, whose numbers are on the rise, though not so much that they get to compete one another. Monique is the only girl on her team, and all her opponents are boys. As much as it’s a drag watching female characters get mistreated in the movies, the relatively easy acceptance that she finds from her teammates strains credulity.
Monique’s sticky-sweet friendship with Omari doesn’t quite scan, either. But her tense, flirty bond with another player, Malik (Jared Kemp, “Luke Cage”), rings abundantly true. Monique starts a fight with his girlfriend over nothing early in the movie, but his desire to take his team to the state championships — and more importantly, to get a college scholarship based on his wrestling prowess — pushes Malik toward making Monique feel wanted, in multiple senses.
The various layers of Mo’s relationship with her slippery father are peeled expertly, too. Even in his lowest, most opportunistic moments, his motivations are understandable, if far from noble. Darrel simply doesn’t comprehend his daughter’s idolization of and need for connection with him. Monique doesn’t hide them — certainly not her desire to have her dad adopt her and become her legal guardian — but she does allow the gale-like force of her wants to shove her into dangerous situations. You can almost see the inferno behind her eyes burn down logic and common sense as her emotions overtake her. She’s a teenager, after all.
Newman doesn’t give the film much room to breathe, or to develop Monique as a person beyond her dysfunctions and the solutions thereof (an after-school activity, parental love). The film’s connect-the-dots approach to storytelling leaves it gasping for slice-of-life details. After her first day on the mats, we see Monique pulling out her blazing red extensions and clipping her once lime-green nails. Despite the many close-ups of Emanuelle’s face, we’re too often denied access to her character’s thoughts and feelings, as Monique changes up her entire look, identity, lifestyle, and social circles to become what she believes her father wants her to be.
Mo’s story feels rare, relevant, and real. But we’re stuck on the outside looking in.