It’s rare that a sports drama can affect me in any meaningful way. The formula is by now so well-trod that you can typically predict the beats of the film before you even sit down to watch it. Take one unlikely hero, mix with adversity, stir in some emotional turmoil, bake until complete. Sports dramas tend to be overly sappy, relying on both the formula and easy emotionalism to cause an effect in their audience. Yawn. That’s not so much the case with First Match.
True, the film does sort of rely on the formula—it’s broad enough to work with just about any mix of characters or situations—but writer/director Olivia Newman laces her film with complex themes that overcome the clichés of the genre to create a genuinely heartfelt and poignant film that is about so much than mere sports.
First Match follows Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), a troubled young girl growing up in the foster care system of New York City. As her troubles mount—she skips school, she gets into fights—her caseworker threatens to move her out of the city unless she cleans her act up. Encouraged by her childhood friend Omari (Jharrel Jerome), Monique joins the all-boys wrestling team at her local high school, stunning both her coach (Colman Domingo) and team with her prowess. However, when her father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is released from prison, Monique is tempted to join an underground fighting league to help her father win money to pursue his dream.
The two paths presented to Monique—one representing legitimate hope and the other representing illegitimate gains—are paths presented to so many looking for ways out of hopelessness. The dichotomy of choices is presented enthrallingly through Monique, herself a fascinating, multi-faceted character played beautifully by Emanuelle. First Match is more than a story about the struggle to succeed in sports; it’s a film about the struggle for life and betterment, for the question of surviving or thriving.
Newman has made a captivating, heartfelt film that is powerfully resonant. It’s an enthralling debut feature with an impacting insight into the nature of the struggle. Even while the film is somewhat beholden to the clichés of the genre, the added impact of its additional themes carries substantially more weight than a film like this normally would.
It’s clear that this is a film that works on levels much deeper than simply a woman struggling in a man’s game (although that’s certainly part of it). Monique’s temptations and hopes are balanced with great care, offering us a glimpse at a kind of struggle the majority of us will never be faced with. It is, simply, remarkable, and more than worth your time.
First Match premieres on Netflix on March 30.