First Match (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Wrestling for her father

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“First Match”, which is currently available on Netflix, initially draws our attention through its supposedly unconventional promise. Here is a young girl who has struggled a lot in her tough environment, and it is often poignant to observe how she tries hard in her own way for what matters much to her. Although the movie eventually becomes quite conventional with its expected plot turns, it still maintains considerable realism to engage us at least, and it is also supported well by its lead performer’s strong acting, which is indubitably the best part of the movie.

When we see Mo (Elvire Emanuelle) at the beginning of the movie, this adolescent black girl living in a Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City is in the middle of her latest trouble. Since her parents became absent several years ago, she has bounced from one foster home to another as causing troubles, and she is now being kicked out of her latest foster home due to her inappropriate relationship with her carer’s boyfriend. Thanks to her kind, patient social service worker, Mo is soon sent to other foster home, but, not so surprisingly, she is not interested much in getting along well with her new carer, who looks nicer compared to her predecessor but quickly becomes frustrated with Mo.

All Mo wants is living with her father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but that does not look possible at present. While he was once a promising wrestling player, Darrel went astray after his wife was gone, and then he was sent to prison due to an unspecified criminal deed. When she finds that he was recently released, Mo is delighted to see her father again, but he is not so eager to spend time with his daughter because he is mostly occupied with finding any possible way for restarting his life.

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Meanwhile, Mo comes to get an idea for getting closer to him. She attempts to join the all-male wrestling team of her high school, and that surely raises the eyebrows of not only Coach Castile (Colman Domingo) but also his team players including Omari (Jharrel Jerome), who has been Mo’s best friend since their childhood. Although the mood is understandably awkward at first, Mo soon proves herself well to the coach and the team players, who initially do not welcome her much but then come to recognize her stubborn spirit in the end.

I must point out that the tension between Mo and other team members is too conveniently resolved, but the movie continues to maintain its level of interest as Mo gradually becomes one of the key players in her team, and we get a series of wresting match scenes as she and her team advance more and more. These wrestling match scenes may look modest, but they are handled quite realistically, and that is more than enough to make us care much about Mo’s ongoing efforts toward her father. While he is not particularly enthusiastic, Darrel cannot help but excited as watching his daughter’s wrestling matches, and it seems Mo finally attains what she has yearned so much from him.

Of course, there comes a trouble as expected, and that is the point where director Olivia Newman’s screenplay, which is expanded from her short film of the same name, begins to falter. The plot often feels contrived and predictable as Mo lets herself pushed into a number of wrong choices and then comes to face the consequences, and the movie is also considerably hampered by its rather thin characterization. For instance, we never get the full understanding of Darrel’s personal struggle, and the same thing can be said about the possible mutual attraction between Mo and a certain team member, which is abruptly halted after one dramatic scene later in the movie and then is conveniently discarded away in the end.

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Nevertheless, the movie remains interesting because of its notable strong points. Right from the very first scene, the movie attracts our interest with its vivid, palpable realistic atmosphere, which is then maintained well throughout its running time. Newman and her cinematographer Ashley Connor did a good job of capturing intimate moments from the performers in the film, and they are all believable in their respective roles thanks to their unadorned natural acting.

As the emotional center of the movie, newcomer Elvire Emanuelle, who previously played a small supporting role in “Rock of Ages” (2012), leaves an indelible impression as balancing her performance well between her character’s strength and vulnerability. While Mo is not particularly likable because of her temper and stubbornness, we come to root for her as empathizing with her desperate emotional need, and Emanuelle is especially good when Mo makes a hard choice around the ending of the movie.

Although most of them are under-utilized due to their underdeveloped characters, the supporting performers in the film acquit themselves well. While Jharrel Jerome, who previously played a substantial supporting character in “Moonlight” (2016), is amiable as Mo’s best friend, Colman Domingo is also fine as a no-nonsense wrestling coach, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II suggests well his character’s regretful past while never spelling it out to us.

“First Match” is the first feature film directed by Newman, and the overall result shows that she is a promising filmmaker to watch. Although it is definitely flawed in several aspects, I appreciated and enjoyed its good elements nonetheless, and I was touched by the small poignancy felt from its last shot. Yes, things remain quite uncertain for our heroine as before, but she will go on anyway, you know.

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