In Netflix's new movie, First Match, a high schooler (Elvire Emanuelle) growing up in Brooklyn's Brownsville projects discovers a passion for wrestling — and so she joins the boys' team, much to the surprise and skepticism of her peers. It's a powerful tale, and while First Match isn't based on a true story, it dos have roots based in reality. The coming-of-age sports movie, which hits Netflix on Mar. 30, was written and directed by Olivia Newman, and the filmmaker came up with the story when working on her thesis film at Columbia University.
"I was interested in this phenomenon that more and more girls are joining boys wrestling teams. So, I went out into the New York City public school wrestling community, to interview girls for my research and also to find a girl to cast in the short," Newman told the blog Black Film while at SXSW. Through her research, the director discovered a story that goes well beyond an inspirational sports drama. Because while the story about a young girl joining a male-dominated team might sound familiar, First Match couldn't be more different from movies like She's The Man and Love and Basketball. The film provides an intimate look at Monique's harrowing upbringing, filled with abuse and betrayal from the adults in her life. You might call it a mix between Precious and Battle of the Sexes in theory, but First Match stands out from the pack due to how deeply and realistically it portrays every aspect of Monique's difficulties.
So many films about women breaking into sports, from A League of Their Own to Girlfight, focus on the sexism that women face in athletics. That's important and inspiring, without question, but First Match shows how intersectionality can complicate a narrative. Sexism isn't the main focus of the film, because while Monique's gender is frequently mentioned, the character is underestimated and disadvantaged for more than the fact that she's a girl. Right at the beginning of the movie, you see Monique getting kicked out of her house and returning to foster care. She then discovers that her dad, a former wrestling champion (played by (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was released from jail, but hasn't even come to find her.
Part of what motivates Monique to join wrestling is to get her father's attention, and it's a heartbreaking glimpse into how a teen who grew up within the foster care system might go through great lengths to gain affection from their parents. As such First Match isn't just inspiring because it shows a woman kicking men's asses — which, by the way, Monique does on many occasions in the ring — but it also shows how a person's sex isn't the only factor that can create challenges. Sometimes, like in Monique's case, systemic racism can lead to a lifetime of hardships such as incarceration and sexual abuse.
In an interview with Refinery29, Newman revealed that she intended to make First Match a powerful movie that doesn't only focus on Monique's gender. "By turning the lens on a female wrestler’s physical and emotional transformation, I also hope to challenge audiences to see young women in a more multi-dimensional way, thereby opening up the possibilities of more non-traditional roles and paths to self-discovery," the filmmaker said.
Monique's story is deeply affecting, and First Match allows its audiences to follow the young woman's journey with intimate, powerful storytelling. As hardened by her life as she may be, Monique becomes a character that you desperately want to see win, and as a result, the Netflix film is as emotionally arresting as the best sports movies out there.