A youth spent facing fatherhood in absentia and tumultuous foster care situations demands a tough front. A tough front goes a long way when you’re trying to protect yourself. It goes even further in a wrestling ring or a bare knuckle boxing match, and in Olivia Newman’s excellent First Match, wrestling and boxing mean two different things: The former a chance at belonging to a surrogate family, the latter a chance at reconnecting with that absent father. If reunited with dad sounds like a great deal upfront, it’s also the sharpest double-edged sword of all when he doesn’t want much to do with you until he sees your pugilism as a way of making a fast buck.
Describing Newman’s film in terms of the contrast it strikes between emotional and physical pain does it a disservice. It’s true that Newman affixes that contrast to her story’s core, and that her protagonist, Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), endures plentiful suffering in both categories, being both lonely—by her own choosing and also as a consequence of the shit hand life has dealt her—and frequently subject to bodily duress. If she isn’t taking on girls in her high school’s hallways, she’s taking down boys on wrestling mats. Eventually she’s taking shots to the face, which brings us back to the subject of her dad, Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and uneasy questions about his parental suitability resting at the film’s core. Maybe Monique was better off without him around.
We meet 15-year-old Monique as she’s given the boot from her most recent foster home, the inevitable conclusion to her affair with her guardian’s boyfriend. The guardian launches Monique’s clothes from her apartment window in volleys lapped by her scorned invective. Before we can fully process what we’re seeing on screen, the scene ends and Monique’s onto the next home, where she immediately pilfers a pair of earrings from her new caretaker, Lucila (Kim Ramirez). It’s not the most flattering introduction to a character as introductions go, but Newman and Emanuelle are walking a tightrope here: They’re finding space for empathy without frosting over Monique’s behavior, suggesting that her circumstances inform her actions while emphasizing that she’s more than her actions.
The balancing act is mostly Emanuelle’s. She’s tasked with giving away nothing while showing us everything. There’s a very lonely person nesting beneath her steely exterior, and if Emanuelle has no qualms acknowledging Monique’s isolation, she also refuses to ask us to feel sorry for her in even her darkest moments. That’s proof of Emanuelle’s quality as an actress: From start to finish, her eyes remain liquid with things left unspoken. It’s also evidence of Monique’s resourcefulness. This young woman is capable of arguing her way into a spot on her high school wrestling team, first persuading Coach Castile (Colman Domingo), then later—much, much later—persuading her teammates that she’s one of them, a scrapper, a winner, a champion. Getting Castile on board is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the easier task.
Monique’s a girl. Her teammates are boys. If she pins them during practice, she loses; if they pin her, she loses. Beating a boy at his own game, so to speak, means incurring that boy’s resentment, because literally every other boy in his orbit will show his manhood no mercy after the fact. (See: The fate of Omari, played by Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome. Monique bests him in practice and his bros never let him hear the end of it.) Losing to that same boy means validating smug male assumptions about Monique’s fitness for the sport on gender grounds. Wrestling is a boy’s world. To survive that world as a young woman, you need to be tough. You need to be the mirror that shows your male counterparts that they’re clowns. The good news is that life has forcefully taught Monique to fight for herself, so she’s remarkably, if tragically, well-suited to the task.
She’s less prepared for Darrel’s reemergence in her world after he gets out of prison, and how his return puts her at risk from straying from her new path. First Match is a consistently great film, but it’s at its best when Emanuelle gets to share the screen with Abdul-Mateen, just the two of them. Like Emanuelle, he’s an open book written in a language that’s difficult to translate. One moment he’s indifferent to her. Another, worse than that, he’s actively chafed by her, as if she’s an inconvenience to him. Then they’re play wrestling together, dad teaching daughter the ropes of the discipline. Turns out Darrel used to be a wrestler, a great one, too, and First Match wrings drama out of that dynamic: He, the former star, training his daughter, the newcomer, coaxing her toward victory.
The movie is hopeful in these brief beats, and so too are we, but we know what to expect from Darrel even if we’re in denial about it. Monique’s flesh is tortured over the course of the film, battered, bruised and bloodied, but as gruesome as her wounds look on the outside, we know what really cripples her is hidden inside. Newman has pretty serious filmmaking chops: She shoots action cleanly, coherently, with an eye for the poetry of a well-executed suplex and the brutality of a back alley brawl. Her strongest work, though, is seen in her characters and in her lead. Violence on the flesh is stomach churning, but it doesn’t quite compare to violence on the spirit.
Director: Olivia Newman
Writer: Olivia Newman
Starring: Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo, Jharrel Jerome, Jared Kemp, Kim Ramirez
Release Date: March 30, 2018 (Netflix)
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.