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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that First Match is an inspirational story about a young African American teen living in Brooklyn who longs for the love and approval of her father, whatever the cost may be to herself. Winner of several awards at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, this heart-rending tale has a stellar cast. Much of the story centers on high school wrestling, with its organized, clean fights and kids striving for excellence. But there are also scenes of the borough's brutal underground fighting arenas, spectacles of young women hoping to cash in on savage battles in which the participants are badly hurt. Obscenities and swearing are frequent, with words like "f--k," "s--t," "d--k," "p---y," and the "N" word used constantly as part of the street vernacular. A few sexual situations occur: kissing and foreplay in an aborted lovemaking sequence, and a young girl seen in bed with a naked older man who has taken advantage of her foster care status. Though wrestling plays an important part, the movie isn't an underdog sports story. The thoughtful film offers strong messages about courage, resilience, and the indestructibility of the human spirit.
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What's the story?
Monique "Mo" (Elvire Emanuelle) has been shuffled from one foster home to another in a rough section of Brooklyn since her father's incarceration. She's abandoned and angry, pinning what little hope she has on Darrel's (Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II) return. Wary of her new foster mother, Lucila (Kimberly Ramirez), Mo expects little. When she sees her father on the street and realizes he hasn't even let her know he's been released, Mo is crushed. School is anything but a refuge for her. Mo's one friend is Omari (Jharrel A. Jerome), a member of Hedgeman High's wrestling team. Mo's comfortable in the wrestling world; her dad's only real success came when as a youngster he went to the state wrestling finals. Mo and Darrel bonded over the sport, and Mo is capable enough, even joyful as she coaches Omari. Hoping that this may be a way to woo her father back into her life, Mo tries out for the team and is a surprise to everyone: the only girl, relatively small in stature, with a fierce competitive spirit. It works. Darrel takes notice. It isn't long, however, before the calculating man sees an opportunity. There's money to be made in the underground fighting business, where women battle each other brutally for what is, in that world, big money. Mo is then faced with the challenge of her young life. How much is she willing to sacrifice for the man she so desperately wants to love her? Or will she be able to find the strength to save herself?
Is it any good?
Not your typical underdog sports story, this film is about personal survival, the ability to accept hard truths, and resilience in the face of a lifetime of disappointment. There's a lot at stake in First Match. And the entire movie is writ large on the face of Elvire Emanuelle, a young actress of remarkable ability and magnetism. Supporting players are just that -- working in support of Emanuelle and the singular vision of writer-director Olivia Newman. They're all excellent. The young wrestlers are exuberant; the coach is insightful. Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II is subtle and effective. Kimberly Ramirez, Mo's Spanish foster mother, gives a nuanced, heartbreaking performance. Only the stock neighborhood "fixer" (Allen Maldonado) seems a cliché. The movie is set in Brooklyn at its least gentrified: the gritty streets, the spot-on rap music, and the sympathetic kids with multiple challenges looking for a way out. Recommended for mature teens.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in First Match. Why is the brutality an essential part of the story? In what ways does it contribute to Mo's arc? What is the meaning of the phrase "gratuitous" violence? How does it differ from the action in this film?
Rap music, with an emphasis on the lyrics, is a frequent and integral component of the movie. How does the music help the audience understand and connect to the characters on-screen?
What character strengths did Mo call upon to make her final, painful decision? What did she finally realize about her father?
- On DVD or streaming: March 30, 2018
- Cast: Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul Mahteen II, Jharrel A. Jerome
- Director: Olivia Newman
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Friendship, High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Curiosity, Perseverance, Self-control
- Run time: 102 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 11, 2020
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