First Match is a raw and beautiful coming of age story. Elvire Emanuelle stars as a teenager in foster care who joins her high school wrestling team to get the attention of her dad.
Mo (Elvire Emanuelle) is thrown out of her latest foster home, her clothing tossed like colorful birds to the sidewalk from an upstairs window. Mo doesn’t care where she lives, she’s just waiting for her dad to get out of jail so she can live with him.
She and her best friend Omari (Jharrel A. Jerome) happen upon her dad carrying out the trash from a local restaurant. Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) doesn’t want anything to do with his daughter. The emotions on Mo’s face show her hope and need so clearly, it’s heartbreaking when he tells her she’s grown now and she should do her own thing while he does his. He says he’s been to busy to let her know he was out of jail.
Darrel was a champion wrestler in high school. The one thing he did with Mo and her friend Omari as youngsters was teach them wrestling moves. Omari’s on the wrestling team. A chance word from the coach (Colman Domingo) prompts Mo to try out. She makes the varsity team.
Mo is placed in Lucila’s (Kimberly Ramirez) home. Mo is so seldom there and so uninterested in the woman, she simply calls her the Spanish lady. But Lucila, like the Coach, is the kind of adult who tries to do the right thing. They have a knack for growing on you.
Darrel starts going to matches, watching Mo wrestle. She spends as much time as she can with him in his ratty apartment. They work on wrestling moves together. She wins matches. By extension, the team starts winning. The team, with Mo’s help, makes it to the finals.
Mo develops a crush on a good looking wrestler with college ambitions named Malik (Jared Kemp). He has a girl friend, but he talks to Mo about scholarships and college.
Darrel realizes he could make big money on Mo if she participated in illegal cage matches. He makes big promises to her to convince her to fight in these brutal bouts.
Mo has support from her team and the Coach as well as acceptance from Lucila. All that swirls around inside her as her father pushes her to fight with tough looking woman who seem ready to kill to win.
Elvire Emanuelle is brilliant as Mo. She conveys emotion with so much nuance and grace, she’s a pleasure to watch. Her anger is palpable, but so is her longing and loneliness.
Olivia Newman wrote and directed First Match, based on her short film of the same name. It’s her first full length feature. Ashley Connor did the cinematography, which was both creatively beautiful and right in the middle of sweaty action. Many more behind the camera names were women as well. This is the kind of female centric indie I’m always searching for.
First Match is available on Netflix. It’s a sensitive and passionate coming of age story. I recommend it.