For her feature debut, Olivia Newman could have made a standard sports drama about a teenage girl breaking into the world of boys wrestling. Instead, in “First Match,” the writer-director tells an unvarnished story that grapples with the complexity of father-daughter relationships and the desperation of feeling like you have no choices.
Monique (Elvire Emanuelle) bounces from foster home to foster home, but she thinks that she may have found a way out of the system when she runs into her father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) after his release from prison. To get his attention and affection, she follows in his footsteps and joins her Brooklyn high school’s wrestling team.
Like its headstrong heroine, “First Match” refuses to do what we expect of it. It speeds past the challenges we imagine would be hurdles, such as Monique being the only girl competing in matches, and instead devotes its energies to a more nuanced narrative.
Based on Newman’s short of the same name, the strong script deserves credit for giving a voice to an experience that is rarely seen on screen, but it all works because of Emanuelle. The actress is a tightly wound bundle of raw nerves, exposing each dimension of the teen’s emotions as she moves from sullen to fierce to vulnerable. But while “First Match” is more ambitious than most films in the genre, it still provides moments to cheer our complicated heroine, whether she’s on the mat or off.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: iPic Westwood, Los Angeles, and streaming on Netflix