In the first few moments of First Match, we see an upward shot of various pieces of clothing cascading downwards in slow motion. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that the beauty of the scene is made possible by the fact that protagonist Monique’s (Elvire Emanuelle) foster mother is kicking her out and throwing her things out of the window. Moments like these in the film highlight the beauty in struggle, without downplaying the sadness and severity of it.
First Match is the story of teenager Monique, hardened by her years of bouncing around the Brooklyn foster care system. The introductory scenes paint her current circumstances in life, brought about by the passing of her mother, incarceration of her father, poor decisions, and an attitude problem. Mo is desperate to reconnect with her estranged father, Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and escape the cycle of foster homes and social workers, but when she happens to run into him on the street at his new job, he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her.
Darrel was a state champion wrestler back in his day, and allegedly taught Mo “everything she knows.” So, in an attempt to draw from attention from her father, Mo joins the boys wrestling team. She finally develops a sense of purpose and belonging when Darrel starts showing up to her matches and giving her pointers, but her newfound stability is threatened when Darrel tries to throw her into a dangerous sub-plot of underground fighting to win him some money. First Match becomes a question of what choices Mo will make under the impossibly conflicting circumstances of restoring order and purpose in her life and appealing to her long-lost, broken father.
What really gives First Match its power is the expressiveness of the cinematography, how it captures the raw emotion behind a second’s glance. When Mo stumbles upon her father for the first time in the street, we see the hardened distance between them manifest itself in her expression—a mix of joy, terror, and pain. We see Mo’s desperation for her father’s love and attention in her last-second peeks at the door before the start of each of her matches. We see the mask of defiance when Mo faces those in authority over her that hides her fear and confusion. Cinematographer Ashley Connor holds the close-ups masterfully, particularly with Mo, and compliments the script well.
The performance from Emanuelle as Mo is impressive. Due to her unforgiving surroundings, the character of Mo has had to learn to hide her emotions behind a visage of nonchalance, and Emanuelle adopts that visage wonderfully, periodically conveying glimpses of the depth of feeling underneath. Abdul-Mateen II as Darrel is fairly lackluster, but whether that’s from the character or the performance is unclear. That Darrel is defeated as a man is evident, but the attempts to reveal his ostensible love for Mo seem pretty forced and synthetic. Jharrel Jerome, on the other hand, stands out in his portrayal of Mo’s best friend Omari, revealing the challenges to helping someone you care about.
Though technically a sports drama, First Match is less about the final showdown (and the training montage leading up to it) than the decisions Mo makes in her coming-of-age and the lessons she learns from the people she least expects to care about her. In the beginning, Mo holds on to the sentiment that only blood family can take care of you—a sentiment that’s broken down throughout the movie in the contrast between the way her father treats her and the way the other elders around her help her grow. And though there are some forced tropes of coming-of-age sports dramas tossed in here (i.e. Malik’s (Jared Kemp) role as Mo’s offhand love interest) First Match embodies the genre in a new and different way. It’s a movie about the unending wealth of truth and emotion that can come and go in a moment. It shows us how making the right choice can sometimes be harder than making the wrong one, but also how the people you surround yourself with are just as important as what you choose to do.
Featured Image by Netflix