Why is the concept of a powerful and talented female athlete still revered as something unexpected and revolutionary? It’s 2018. Women have been competing and dominating in predominantly male sports for years, yet the cinematic world is still inclined to exhaust the tale of the female who “proved herself” by competing like “one of the boys.” Netflix’s new “First Match” fits this archetype in its entirety and holds no real flavor, other than that which it has sucked from predecessor flicks within the wrestling, boxing and troubled-youth subgenres.
In “First Match,” aggressive and hardened Monique (Elvire Emanuelle, “Rock of Ages”) is an aimless teen with an attitude problem, stuck in foster care. After discovering her father, a former high school wrestling champ, has been released from prison, she joins her school’s wrestling team. However, balancing her new commitment to the sport with her aim to impress and gain validation from her father, who reveals himself to be a shadier and shadier figure by the minute, proves far more complicated than Monique could have imagined.
Interspersing sequences of Monique training for competitions on her high school team and rekindling her teetering relationship with her father, the rhythm of the film is lost. In one moment, audiences are rooting for Monique on the wrestling mat, yet in the next, we are onlookers to a poorly-scripted conversation between Monique and her father. Basically, the whole of the film consists of ever-so-slightly modified variations of these two sequences, failing to deliver the one-two punch needed to keep viewers engaged.
More frustrating, however, is the negative stereotype of Black women that is perpetuated through Monique’s rudeness and overall “fight-me” attitude. In one sequence during the beginning of the film, a girl at school makes a snide comment about Monique’s joining the wrestling team, causing Monique to lash out, grabbing the girl by the hair and initiating a physical brawl. Though the film’s intention is to show that Monique’s hostility is — surprise, surprise — prompted by her difficult past, Monique embodies the misconceptions that society has about Black women being loud, hotheaded and willing to go off on whoever tests them.
Though not enough to redeem the film’s shortcomings, the bond between Monique and her foster mother Lucila (Kim Ramirez, “Nerve”) serves as one of the more intriguing elements. Divided by both barriers of language and Monique’s clear lack of desire for any sort of relationship, interactions shared by Lucila and Monique are exclusively negative for the majority of the movie. Subtly, however, their relationship eventually begins to grow. Lucila does not bleed into the role of the relentlessly doting foster mother, unphased by Monique’s hostility as one might expect. In fact, the dislike between Lucila and Monique is clearly mutual, which feels much more realistic and, by extension, unexpected among the consistency of cliché throughout the film.
The greatest weakness with “First Match” is that it knows exactly what it wants to be. Feeding from both worn-out storylines of the rough-around-the-edges foster teen and of the tenacious girl proving herself in a male sport, the filmmakers of “First Match” mistake the combination of these two conventions as somehow sufficient to fabricate a feeling of inventiveness. However, women pushing the boundaries in the athletic world is hardly a fresh topic. Without adding its own distinctive twist on an already overused narrative, “First Match” struggles to pin down audience members, who quickly tire of the film’s predictability.