As ‘First Match’ Hits Netflix, Watch Six More Great Shorts That Became Famous Features

Following its Audience Award–winning debut at this year’s SXSW Festival, the coming of age sports drama “First Match” is now available to stream on Netflix. Directed by Olivia Newman, and starring Elvire Emanuelle as a teenage girl in foster care who joins an all-boys wrestling team to connect with her father, First Match is another in a long and impressive list of breakout independent features that were initially developed as short films.

Newman first tackled this story while a film student at Columbia in 2010 (you can watch that version here) before eventually expanding it into her acclaimed directorial debut, which you can watch here on Netflix. Newman translated the naturalistic and intimate feel of the short with help from DP Ashley Connor’s lyrically expressive handheld camerawork and backed by a largely female crew. In fact, 60% of the crew was female, and 75% of the department heads were female.

The short-to-film transition is a path that a lot of filmmakers take on the way to their first major work. But the more successful the feature, the more forgotten the short that inspired it becomes. So in honor of the little guy, here’s a celebration of some great short films that led to cinematic gold.

Whiplash”/“Whiplash”

J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance is distilled to its vitriolic essence in Damien Chazelle’s wildly impressive short, which the first-time director was forced to make in order to assure producers that his feature script was worth backing. The short consists entirely of what would become the iconic “rushing or dragging” scene of the subsequent film, with Simmons hurling chairs and insults at young Johnny Simmons (excellent in the Miles Teller role) in an unforgettable display of real time dehumanization.

While Chazelle didn’t particularly want to shoot it, he later regarded the short as invaluable. Its visual rhythms and tone proved to backers that “Whiplash” wasn’t just some boring movie about jazz drumming, but in fact an edge of your seat thriller about jazz drumming. Obviously, the short was effective in getting the feature made. But what’s most impressive now looking back is not only how well it holds up as its own piece of short form filmmaking, but how other than the setting and actor, the same scene plays out almost identically in the Oscar-winning film – line for line, beat for beat.

The Babadook”/“Monster”

Called “Baby Babadook” by director Jennifer Kent, the 2005 short film that inspired her breakout horror feature (and a new cultural icon) “The Babadook” is still an impressive assault on the nerves. Kent’s 10-minute “Monster” begins appropriately under the bed, watching as a young boy plays a little too roughly with a super creepy doll – a doll his beleaguered mother quickly shoves in the closet, where it comes to life and begins to terrorize her.

Shot in grimy black and white, “Monster” is a fine distillation of both the thematic and visceral horrors “The Babadook” is famous for. Maternal anxiety, cockroaches in the kitchen, and that long-clawed menace are all on display (although no top hat), rendering some truly terrifying moments that are far too rare in short-form horror. It may not have had a name yet, but Kent’s seriously scary precursor introduces us to a movie monster we won’t soon forget.

“What We Do In the Shadows”/“What We Do In the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires”

Almost ten years before their horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows hit theaters, writer/director/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi made a 30-minute rough draft of the same hilarious premise. A lot of the gags in this mockumentary about vampire roommates are basically the same and the budget is decidedly smaller, but the (largely improvised) jokes are just as fall-down funny – particularly Clement’s ramblings about non-wolf “Were”-creatures (he’s no fan of Weregeese).

One element that separates the short from the feature involves an extended sequence where the three vampires go out on the town in New Zealand, walking the streets in their Victorian garb. As they stroll in search of virgin blood, many real life pedestrians hurl homophobic slurs at them – creating an eye opening and disturbing moment in an otherwise delightful low-key comedy about the etiquette of corpse removal.

“What We Do in the Shadows” continues to have teeth and is now currently in development as a TV series at FX with Clement writing and Waititi (fresh off his massive success helming “Thor: Ragnarok”) directing.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild/ “Glory at Sea”

For most audiences, Ben Zeitlin’s audacious and visually stunning fable “Beasts of the Southern Wild” came seemingly out of nowhere. But Zeitlin had begun imagining the world of “Beasts” — with its storm-ravaged Louisiana setting and magical junkyard aesthetic — in his stunning short film “Glory at Sea!”

A young girl (akin to Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts”) narrates from far beneath the ocean as bodies float around her, drifting aimlessly in the deep after a massive flood has swept them away. When one of these bodies returns to shore, the survivors on land piece together a ship made up of whatever they can find and set sail to join those they’ve lost at sea. Made over five months on a $100,000 budget, “Glory at Sea!” is short filmmaking on an epic scale, and while it doesn’t have Lucy Alibar’s writing or Wallis’ breakout performance, this predecessor still manages to reach the sublime and joyous highs that made “Beasts” so unforgettable.

“Mama”/“Mamá”

The synopsis is simple: A girl tells her sister that “Mama’s home” and quickly we learn that this is not a good thing. This bit of bite-size horror from Spanish director Andy Muschietti is just three minutes long and consists of essentially one long and terrifying take – but that was more than enough for Guillermo Del Toro to declare it “One of the scariest scenes I’ve ever scene.”

As a result of Del Toro’s fandom, he and Muschietti expanded the short into a surprisingly successful feature in 2013 starring Jessica Chastain, who is rumored to co-star in Muschietti’s second installment of his massively popular It adaptation. It just goes to show that sometimes three minutes and one scary idea are all you need to become a master of horror.

“District 9″/“Alive in Joburg”

South African filmmaker Neil Blomkamp’s six-minute short “Alive in Joburg” was so striking that after seeing it, Peter Jackson hired him to direct his company’s Halo adaptation. That project never panned out, but Blomkamp convinced Jackson to produce a feature-length version of “Joburg” instead. The resulting “District 9” — an Apartheid allegory about alien refugee camps — is considered a modern classic of science fiction and one of the few in its genre to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture.

Like “District 9,” “Joburg” is a mockumentary-style telling of an aliens coming to Earth and being forced to live in slum-like villages in Johannesburg. The special effects and storytelling are as remarkable in the short as they are in the subsequent feature, and the commentary on governmental oppression and xenophobia is equally direct and effective. There’s not much in “Joburg” that you don’t also get from “District 9,” but it’s still a jaw-dropping accomplishment that announced the arrival of a true visionary.

‘First Match’ Review: SXSW Audience Winner Wrestles With Real-Life Struggles And Comes Out A Winner For Netflix

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…

‘First Match’ Film Review: Netflix’s Female-Wrestler Drama Needs Breathing Room

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.

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SXSW Film Review: ‘First Match’

At first glance, Olivia Newman’s “First Match,” the story of a teenager fending off the pressure to brawl in an illegal boxing ring, makes horrors look beautiful. Falling clothes from an apartment window look alive in the wind. Zoomed-in, an overweight man’s stomach could pass for a mountain. It takes a few blinks to make […]

‘First Match’ And ‘TransMilitary’ Are Among SXSW Audience Award Winners

As it wraps up its 25th anniversary edition in Austin, the SXSW Film Festival announced its Audience Award winners, with the list headed by narrative First Match and documentary TransMilitary. First Match is a Netflix drama written and directed by Olivia Newman about a Brooklyn girl who finds her way by competing against boys in high school wrestling. TransMilitary chronicles the lives of four American transgender troops defending their country's freedom while fighting…

‘First Match’ Review: A Gripping Coming-of-Age Drama About a Girl Wrestling Her Way Out of the Projects — SXSW

If coming-of-age stories feel so familiar, it’s largely because we all have one of our own. That’s not to absolve the genre of its many clichés (most of which are considerably older than the characters who tend to embody them), but rather to emphasize their inevitability. Everyone grows up, everyone discovers themselves, and everyone feels like they’re pioneering uncharted territory when they do it. By nature, these are movies that prioritize the journey over the destination — it doesn’t matter if you can tell where they’re going so long as you can believe how they get there.

You believe everything about Monique (a brilliant Elvire Emanuelle). Where she’s going, where she’s been, how she plans to navigate between the two. And while it can be somewhat frustrating that such a vibrant and singularly well-realized heroine should have to grapple with some of the tired strictures of the coming-of-age saga that’s imposed on her, Monique pins each one of them with ease. She’s not the first person to fight her way out of the Brownsville projects (Mike Tyson grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood), but everyone has to blaze their own trail.

Adapted with confidence from her 2010 short of the same name, Olivia Newman’s raw and beautifully well-realized “First Match” introduces Monique as such a self-destructive force of nature that you’re almost relieved when the scrappy teenage protagonist eventually settles into a recognizable character arc. When we first meet her, she’s just had sex with her latest foster father. Incestuous as it sounds, she hasn’t lived with this guy (and his wife) for all that long, and she won’t spare either of them a second thought after she’s inevitably kicked back into the system.

That’s just how it goes for someone who’s used to being on her own. Monique knows her mom is dead, she thinks her dad is still locked up, and she’s been taught to believe that family isn’t something you can just find along the way; her actual parents didn’t look after her, so why should anyone else? She’s just a kid, fighting to make space for herself in a world that seems like it was fully formed before she even got there. The only strength she has is the strength she takes. Maybe that has something to do with why — on what looks like a whim — she decides to become the first girl on her high school’s wrestling team.

And decide is really the operative word. It’s not like anybody can stop her. The team coach (an enjoyably brusque Colman Domingo) knows that Monique could use a place to belong, and the boys in her weight class only get to snicker for a few scenes before she’s got them all on their backs. Newman does a clever job of complicating the unavoidable gender dynamics of it all, angling the intensely choreographed sparring matches into an understated love triangle between Monique, her only friend (“Moonlight” breakout Jharrel Jerome), and her new jock crush (Jared Kemp). These teens are very literally wrestling with their feelings.

Monique is a natural in the ring, but that doesn’t come as much of a surprise — not only has she been forcing her way out of tight spots for most of her life, but the sport runs in her blood. Her dad, Darrel (a wounded and arrestingly complex Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was also a star wrestler at her age, not that it did him much good. Not that it’s doing him much good now. He’s out of jail, working cleanup at a ratty local restaurant, and an accidental run-in with his daughter lays out how the rest of this film is going to unfold.

It’s a magnificently staged encounter, the clenched distress on Emanuelle’s face registering how that initial shock sharpens with rage before softening into hope. It’s the best part of a beautiful performance, a single look powerful enough to trace the distance between the life Monique wants and the love that’s available to her.

Ashley Connor’s hyper-expressive handheld cinematography keeps that space in focus even when Newman strains to steer Monique towards her defining moment. A major subplot in which Darrel pressures his daughter into a series of underground cage fights feels glaringly contrived (and wildly unnecessary) in the context of a no-holds-barred coming-of-age drama that doesn’t really need to cheat. Monique’s choices seem real because she’s such a vital conduit for them, but they’re slightly cheapened by her father’s violent inability to be a decent option. Like a romantic-comedy in which the female lead is forced to choose between a lifeless dolt and the man of her dreams, “First Match” is hurt by how it effectively makes Monique’s biggest decision for her.

At least this isn’t a movie about winning the big match, or even one about Monique choosing which of her matches to fight — although both prospects begin to cloud the story in the third act. On the contrary, this is a movie about where strength comes from, who takes it from us, and how we get it back. It’s familiar territory, but “First Match” is such a powerful coming-of-age story because Monique makes us feel like she’s the first person to ever set foot there.

Grade: B

“First Match” premiered at SXSW 2018. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting March 30.

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