FIRST MATCH Review: Family Over Those Who Are Actually Good For Us?

“The ones love us least, are the ones we'll die to please.”

Photo credit: First Match/IMDb

That line, from The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” has evoked strong emotions in listeners for decades, but it’s not entirely right, is it? For many people, especially when we’re young, “the ones we’ll die to please” do love us, but they still might not have our best interest at heart. They love us, but perhaps not more than they love themselves. They love us, but they ask us to make sacrifices for them when they wouldn’t do the same for us—and in return we get little breadcrumbs of love dropped for us on a trail that we mistakenly think will lead to their full heart. That’s the dynamic that teenage Monique has with her dad in writer-director Olivia Newman’s new Netflix drama, First Match.

Love and Manipulation Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Monique, played by newcomer Elvire Emanuelle, is a foster child who doesn’t spend enough time with any foster families to even bother learning their names—she puts her latest caretaker in her phone under “Spanish Lady,” for instance. “I have a family,” she insists, referring to her father, the recently incarcerated Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who returns to her life in a limited—and manipulative—way. He’s distant at first, perhaps out of shame that his first post-jail job is cleaning up rat droppings and taking out the trash at a local shop, perhaps out of selfishness and wanting to be rid of his past. Either way, Monique, nicknamed Mo by her teammates on her high school’s otherwise all-male wrestling team, feels the sting of tears welling up in her eyes thanks to her dad’s reluctance to spend time with her. As Mo runs down the street, tearful and hyperventilating with grief and anger, cinematographer Ashley Connor’s handheld camera “struggles” (re: this is entirely on purpose) to find its focus on her face in profile, which blurs her. The streetlights are magnified into floating orbs of color, menacing Mo, threatening to overtake her, as Newman and Connor say, “She is unraveling and in need of structure.”

But once Darrel, a former champion wrestler in his own right, learns that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, his ears perk up. Mo knows which way the wind blows, so she challenges him, dares him to attend her wrestling matches at school, as she and her teammates make their bid for New York City’s finals. She knows that competition is the only thing that animates her father, and she wants to use it for something positive after a lifetime of neglect. Emanuelle plays this scene like the mastermind of a heist. She knows the score, or at least she thinks she does. She’s gonna get the love that’s owed to her, red flags be damned.

And so dad starts coming around. He starts joking with her, making fun of her music taste (“This is old as me,” he says while scrolling through her music history) and ribbing her about the boy she has a crush on. He recalls minute details of her when she was young, before he got so strapped for cash that he had to start slinging drugs, which led to his imprisonment. He buys her brand new wrestling shoes. He’s back. Hunky dory? No, of course not, because their environment is still garbage and their father-daughter “wrestling practices” must occur between drug deals—Darrel can’t handle being paid minimum wage for wretched work, so he returns to the corner. It makes Mo feel bad, but Darrel’s dropping all those love breadcrumbs every step of the way.

Newman, expanding on the short-film version of First Match from 2010, has no interest in making Darrel a villain. Those love breadcrumbs are the best he can do, all he can offer to the daughter he had when he was still turning heads in the wrestling ring as a youngster. Abdul-Mateen shares his director’s view of the character, too. He plays Darrel as a desperate yet hopeful man who wants to be rid of his baggage so he can move out of state to open a business. His desperation creates ulterior motives for his wrestling practice with Mo, and soon he’s talking her into taking beatings in underground boxing matches to earn quick cash for his (and maybe her) ticket out of town and away from drugs, prison, and memories of failure.

Conner’s cinematography doesn’t give the audience any chance to remove themselves from the icky balance that Darrel and Mo strike. When you watch First Match, you are right there with those characters. Unlike most indie flicks produced in the last decade, this film eschews cold, distancing blues in favor of earth tones and the hazy yellow of big city street lights—if you squint, the film looks at times like an especially serious, nighttime-set episode of Broad City, which is much appreciated. Like Mo’s living situation and emotional state, the film has an organic look, unsanitized to show the shifting ground beneath Mo. Her quest for structure feels earned with every peek at the crumbling infrastructure and struggling lives around her.

But is that structure to come from her father, the man one would typically hope she winds up living with? Or is the structure already there between the circles of the wrestling mat, with her caring coach and helpful (and cute) teammates there, cheering her on? It would seem a simple choice, but real life isn’t that simple. Those love breadcrumbs sure are tempting, and doing what’s right for you isn’t always easy, especially when it’s your own flesh and blood telling you to sacrifice your best interest.

Director: Olivia Newman
Writer: Olivia Newman
Starring: Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo, Jharrel Jerome, Kim Ramirez, Jared Kemp
Available now on Netflix

FIRST MATCH Review: Family Over Those Who Are Actually Good For Us? FIRST MATCH Review: Family Over Those Who Are Actually Good For Us? Reviewed by Rob Samuelson on Friday, March 30, 2018 Rating: 5
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