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SXSW 2018 Review: ‘First Match’

SXSW 2018 Review: ‘First Match’

Netflix brings us First Match — a story about a teenage girl from the tough neighborhood of Brownsville, who decides to join an all-male wrestling team as a way to stay connected to her father. Monique (Elvire Emanuelle) aptly called “Mo” has been hardened by her years in foster care.  She lives with her caretaker Lucila (Kim Ramirez), who mostly speaks Spanish and little English.  Mo struggles to build a relationship Lucila — but seeks solace in finding a connection with her estranged father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  However, we learn that Darrel has selfish motives of his own and uses Mo’s need for his incessant approval as a way to serve his own self-interests.

Directed by Olivia Newman, the feature evolved from a short film of the same name which premiered at the 2011 New York Film Festival and won Best Student short at Aspen Shortsfest. Newman deliberately wanted to have a diverse crew, and 60% of the team was comprised of women. There was also deliberate messaging with respect to the names of schools and characters in the film. The names of the schools appearing on the wrestling uniforms are a tribute to Black trailblazers like Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Lewis Latimer and Mae Jemison.  There was also a homage to Black men killed in state-sanctioned violence like Alton Sterling and Eric Garner. Actor Colman Domingo plays Coach Castile named after Philando Castile. Castile’s homicide occurred only a few days prior to production.  First Match is the debut feature film for writer/director Olivia Newman and is also Elvire Emanuelle’s first lead role in a feature film.

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Elvire does a magnificent job transforming throughout the story as she’s this girl with a tough veneer, only for us to later find out she’s got a delicate shell like an egg that can easily be broken.  Mo desperately seeks out love and attention from her father Darrel, who uses her strength and vulnerabilities to bet on her in street fighting matches.  The film draws parallels between her work as a fighter on her high school wrestling team — an outlet where she can fuel her competitive spirit in a healthy and productive way — to using her muscles and strength to fight for money in a bloodsport match. Mo knows immediately what she is doing is wrong, but pushes on anyway in order to fill an empty void.

This narrative in First Match feels real, authentic and organic.  This story also carries a universal message that can take place in the projects of Brownsville to the suburbs of Beverly Hills — this movie is one that viewers will deeply connect to and identify with.

First Match premieres on Netflix March 30th.


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