A Surprisingly Solid Sport Drama
At first glance, First Match looks like another clichéd sport film blending a rise-to-the-top story with a formulaic relationship drama before a triumphant end. As the film starts it certainly begins down this path with hardened Mo (Elvire Emanuelle), a troubled foster care child, turning to wrestling as a positive outlet for her complicated emotional issues. Around the halfway point, First Mach takes a surprisingly unexpected turn and explodes into life, becoming much more emotionally involved and absorbing. The wrestling scenes are still important to the context of the story but as the plot builds up to its emotionally charged climax, the drama takes over and elevates this Netflix Original beyond its perceived conventional story.
The story begins with a flurry of profanities as Mo is kicked out of her foster family’s house following a sexual altercation with her foster-father. As she struggles to find a place to call her home, Mo grapples with problems at school, a crippled relationship with her father and her own emotional complexities. The anchor for all of this emotional weight lies in a high school wrestling team where she hones her talents and channels her emotions into a productive outlet with the help of her friend Omari (Jharrel Jerome) and her Coach (Colman Domingo). It’s during this initial phase in the film that First Match seems like it’s going to nestle comfortably among the myriad of other sport dramas with a big triumphant sport-based finale but this film cleverly subverts those expectations in an unexpected way.
It’s worth noting at this point that First Match is a character driven drama first and foremost. Almost every scene features Mo and there’s various neat camera movements boasting an artistic range including point of view and over-the-shoulder shots. The intimate way the camera relentlessly follows Mo helps to really emphasise with her situation and the film is all the stronger for it. All of this would be for nothing if Elvire’s performance as the emotionally torn but hardened Mo was sub-standard but thankfully her acting is on point and really helps drive her character’s emotions in a subtle and intelligent way. The final scenes of the film are beautifully shot too and really accentuate her acting prowess throughout.
First Match is a pleasant surprise and one that manages to navigate the crowded sport drama genre and deliver an original and unexpected story, avoiding cliches along the way. The smartly written script lacks a lot of expository dialogue you’d find in films like this too and an emotionally raw performance from Elvire Emanuelle helps to make this a much more engaging watch. First Match does take a while to get going and at times it feels like it struggles a little to merge the wrestling and drama elements together in a harmonious way but as the film crosses the halfway point, First Match confidently defies expectations to deliver a satisfying and emotionally charged second half. Whilst it’s unlikely to win any awards or be remembered for years to come, First Match is a pleasant surprise and one worth watching for the drama and performance of Elvire Emanuelle.