Netflix’s ‘First Match’ Hits the Mat Hard and Comes Up Big
First-time feature filmmaker Olivia Newman has delivered a startling debut with “First Match,” taking the viewer on a hostile journey through the challenging life of an abrasive yet compelling lead character which dares to pull zero punches. Newman’s sturdy screenplay, which is based on a short film she made eight years ago, hits some of the expected notes for a film of this nature, but due to the likely lack of creative interference by producer and distributor Netflix, the film feels extremely true to life and appropriately hardcore. These types of narratives, ones that focus intensely on characters and the world we currently inhabit, are getting harder and harder to attract financing and the appreciation of mass audiences. So while Newman may have had grander ideas for how her film might have been rolled-out, she’s guaranteed more eye-balls for her project because of the visibility and reach that Netflix provides.
Featuring a star-making performance by Elvire Emanuelle as Monique, an angry high schooler living in Brooklyn who becomes a force to be reckoned with on the all-boys wrestling team at her school while also dabbling in illegal, organized street-fights, “First Match” dares the viewer to turn away on more than one occasion, never backing down from the inherent challenges set up by Newman’s intelligent scenario. Emanuelle exhibits the same sense of filmic fierceness all throughout “First Match” that’s been projected by the likes of Charlize Theron in “Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” and Taraji P. Henson in “Smokin’ Aces” and “Proud Mary” — it wouldn’t be surprising to see her land an action heroine role in the near future. The film’s supporting performances are uniformly excellent, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II registering strongly as Monique’s burnt-out father, an ex-champion wrestler who hasn’t figured into his daughter’s life with any major importance. The naturally magnetic Jharrel Jerome shines again after his breathtaking turn in “Moonlight” as Monique’s willing-to-take-it-all friend, and Colman Domingo makes a distinctive impression as Monique’s coach, a man who knows that he’s got his work cut out for him with this particular student, but that it’s a job well-worth accepting.
The mobile lensing by cinematographer Ashley Connor gives the entire production a slightly off-kilter and very visceral edge, with the various wrestling matches covered in a straight-forward fashion that stresses the complexities of the sport. Tamara Meem’s tight editing reinforces the film’s sense of dramatic purpose, while Meem and Newman were smart enough to allow a few extra moments in a few key spots which heightens the impact even further. The hip-hop dominated soundtrack adds bounce and step to the images but then makes way for more classically-dominated music to surface, and it’s clear that the filmmakers shot on-location, as “First Match” feels lived-in and honest about the hard-scrabble nature of its characters and their surroundings. The film’s sound design is also a massive reason that the fight sequences sting with authenticity, especially the down and dirty bare-knuckle bouts. Newman doesn’t shy away from the bloody details, either, both thematically and artistically. “First Match” is a tough and draining film to experience at times, but fully rewarding by its conclusion because of its willingness to get back up and fight despite huge adversity.
“First Match” begins streaming March 30 on Netflix.