At first glance, Olivia Newman’s “First Match,” the story of a teenager fending off the pressure to brawl in an illegal boxing ring, makes horrors look beautiful. Falling clothes from an apartment window look alive in the wind. Zoomed-in, an overweight man’s stomach could pass for a mountain. It takes a few blinks to make sense of the abstract images, but in context, these glimpses of Brooklyn foster kid Monique’s life make for a portrait from hell. The clothes are the girl’s latest caretaker throwing her out, and the naked man — her caretaker’s boyfriend — is why. In bed with the cheating creep, Monique (Elvire Emanuelle) wheedles him for money, asking, “You’re like my step-daddy, right?” But the way he throws crumpled cash on the sheets, it looks like a different relationship.
Still, he’s no worse a father figure than her own dad, Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a former state wrestling champion who didn’t bother to let her know he’s out of jail. Lonely Monique, armored in her red hair, neon nails and furious temper, fixates on the wrong men. When she and her only friend, Omari (the charismatic Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight”), run into her dad on the street, she humiliates herself by begging Darrel for his phone number. “You do your thing, I’ll do mine,” says dad, shuffling down the street to get in line at the soup kitchen.
Usually Monique attacks anyone who gives her a glare, a defiance the excellent Emanuelle channels even in the way she walks. Only one adult, her latest foster parent, Lucila (Kim Ramirez), worries about her safety, and Monique cares so little about Lucila that she saves her number under the name, “Spanish Lady.”
Yet, Darrel makes her weak. Over the arc of “First Match,” Monique’s desperation to get her abusive pops to notice her — to pay attention to the details that Newman’s camera does — motivates her to become the first girl on her high school’s boys’ wrestling team, a resolution that straightens her out, then bends her in half when her victories get Darrel interested in signing her as an underground street fighter for his crooked boss, Jose (Allen Maldonado).
Newman can stage a terrific fight. Monique’s organized wrestling matches are tense and easy to follow. Her bare-knuckle boxing brawls are sickening; we’re scared both for Monique and the women she’s fighting, since no one gets in that ring for fun. Every punch hurts, and Newman doesn’t skimp on the bruises and blood. The soundtrack is a mix of sincere acoustic guitars and violins — and swaggering Tribe Called Quest tracks that sound great but came out 10 years before Monique would have been born.
This crossbred coming-of-age sports pic struggles to not be “mad predictable,” as Monique would sneer. It knows that winning a spot on the varsity team — and maybe even winning a scholarship, a goal her new friend, Malik (Jared Kemp), tries to put in her head — doesn’t mean anything if Monique can’t get her head straight. “First Match” glances at sexism, which isn’t crucial to the plot. At first, people stress how terrible wrestling a girl is for the guys. If they lose, it’s doubly shameful. And if they win, they still lose. As Darrel says, “Ain’t nothing in it for a dude.” Counters Monique, “How’s that my fault?” Both have a point.
The script looks clear-eyed at the anger she’s inherited from her dad, and the way Darrel chips away at her confidence by never applauding her without a caveat. Emanuelle manages to make us care about this bullying girl without pleading for sympathy. The tougher her character acts, the more we appreciate her show of bravado. Abdul-Mateen II plays Darrel like a shiftless mess. He’s too sloppy to be a modern-day Fagin, which makes it take longer to hate him than it should.
Alongside Colman Domingo’s Coach Castile, the straight-laced guy saddled with the inspirational speeches, Darrel reluctantly becomes Monique’s back-up trainer. “Wrestling is about human weakness,” he advises. He knows how to press the sensitive spots that will make Monique do what he wants. But neither of them have the perspective to see what’s making the audience gnaw its nails: This almost-adult woman-child, scarred inside and out from childhood, is already in the fight of her life.