Monique is a mess.
We get an earful of that the moment we meet her. Her clothes are being hurled out a window and the profanity comes fast and furious — from her, a wiry, raging teen with dyed coppery hair, and from the foster parent who is doing the hurling.
Monique has been “messing with a man twice” her age — her stepfather. Another inner city foster home bites the dust. The entire housing project has to hear about it, through a torrent of curses about how “your ass about to learn” what happens when you pull that. At 17, no less.
“Ain’t my fault she ain’t learn how to please her man,” Mo’ sniffs.
Mo (Elvire Emmanuelle) steals. She defies whatever foster parent is saddled with her. She skips school. She comes on to men, uses men and boys. She even misuses her childhood pal Omari (Jharrel Jerome), the one her junky/ex-con dad taught to wrestle, by staging matches for Happy Meal toys between them when they were tykes.
Now, Dad (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is out of jail with no interest in resuming fatherhood.
“What you need me for anyway? You’re a grown woman. You go your way, I go mine. See each other along the way.”
And Monique, fighting in school, punching the world when she isn’t giving Omari (and his coach) an earful about tactics and technique, has just one way out, one way to get her dad’s attention, one place to channel all this fear and rage and aggression into — wrestling.
“First Match” is a gritty streetwise high school wrestling tale and coming of age/finding your “thing” drama. Emmanuelle makes a fearsome first film impression as Mo, a kid worth giving up on, which is why almost everyone has.
Coach (Colman Domingo) isn’t interested in her “outlet for my anger” needs. But he’s not above challenging her, himself and the lackluster kids already picked for the squad with Monique’s skills and psychotic temper.
“Practice starts at three, which means you’ve got four minutes to stop wasting my time.”
Domingo’s tough love take on that role gives us the first likeable character in “First Match,” built around an intensely unlikeable, promiscuous, trash-talking punk who sexually shames the boys who pair up with her at practice.
“You never touch a girl before?”
Even sweet Omari gives us a dose of “It ain’t right” for her to be on the team.
“Get your girl in line, Omari.”
Weight mismatches just piss her off. She may have sucker-punched Malik’s girl, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to let the star of the team pin her, even in practice.
The father-daughter scenes writer-director Olivia Newman cooks up have a flinty authenticity, the one thing her ex-con now janitor Dad could teach her was to not care what anybody else thinks of her, and not take anything off anybody. She wins a match? Maybe a hug is in order. Maybe a love-tap to the side of her helmet. Mateen sells this relationship, from disinterest to toothy enthusiasm.
Emmanuelle hurls herself into the physicality of the role, a bit obvious with her indicators — temper, disappointment, focus, fear — but dazzling in her mat savvy.
Her confidence with the cutting comebacks betrays a spitfire sure she can hold her own, with or without rules.
Wrestling is her lifeline, the “discipline and all that” thing she can throw back at her social worker (Eisa Davis) who must explain that, in turn, to the not-much-English “Spanish Lady” (Kim Ramirez) who is her last shot at sticking with a foster parent, which becomes the film’s funniest scene.
“La lucha libre?”
And damned if — don’t be shocked — this hardboiled hood rat doesn’t start to soften up and connect, with teammates, her father and herself. Not right away, not so quickly she doesn’t spread more hurt. People don’t change overnight. And everything off the mat is more likely to be a let down than anything that happens after the whistle blows.
Newman, making her feature film directing debut, stages the matches in tight closeups, foggy wrestler reactions to slams and eyes narrowing into inner resolve. She’s not above doing the whole match montage set to hip hop, the hoary cliche of every sports movie — ever.
And the picture veers into a seriously hackneyed sidetrack or two late in the third act. You kind of wish it wouldn’t, but there’s not enough here without some other story wrinkle, some extra set of obstacles.
“There is no losing, only winning and learning,” coach preaches. But the “learning” peripheral distractions hurt the film.
The film “First Match” parallels most closely is “Girl Fight,” and it’s not in that film’s brutal league. But the petite Ms. Emmanuelle, fierce as she is, can’t carry her film to that level.
But she can take compensation from this. “Girlfight” made Michelle Rodriguez a star.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sexual situations, fisticuffs, profanity, substance abuse discussed.
Cast: Elvire Emanuelle, Jharrel Jerome, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo
Credits: Written and directed by Olivia Newman. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42