If coming-of-age stories feel so familiar, it’s largely because we all have one of our own. That’s not to absolve the genre of its many clichés (most of which are considerably older than the characters who tend to embody them), but rather to emphasize their inevitability. Everyone grows up, everyone discovers themselves, and everyone feels like they’re pioneering uncharted territory when they do it. By nature, these are movies that prioritize the journey over the destination — it doesn’t matter if you can tell where they’re going so long as you can believe how they get there.
You believe everything about Monique (a brilliant Elvire Emanuelle). Where she’s going, where she’s been, how she plans to navigate between the two. And while it can be somewhat frustrating that such a vibrant and singularly well-realized heroine should have to grapple with some of the tired strictures of the coming-of-age saga that’s imposed on her, Monique pins each one of them with ease. She’s not the first person to fight her way out of the Brownsville projects (Mike Tyson grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood), but everyone has to blaze their own trail.
Adapted with confidence from her 2010 short of the same name, Olivia Newman’s raw and beautifully well-realized “First Match” introduces Monique as such a self-destructive force of nature that you’re almost relieved when the scrappy teenage protagonist eventually settles into a recognizable character arc. When we first meet her, she’s just had sex with her latest foster father. Incestuous as it sounds, she hasn’t lived with this guy (and his wife) for all that long, and she won’t spare either of them a second thought after she’s inevitably kicked back into the system.
That’s just how it goes for someone who’s used to being on her own. Monique knows her mom is dead, she thinks her dad is still locked up, and she’s been taught to believe that family isn’t something you can just find along the way; her actual parents didn’t look after her, so why should anyone else? She’s just a kid, fighting to make space for herself in a world that seems like it was fully formed before she even got there. The only strength she has is the strength she takes. Maybe that has something to do with why — on what looks like a whim — she decides to become the first girl on her high school’s wrestling team.
And decide is really the operative word. It’s not like anybody can stop her. The team coach (an enjoyably brusque Colman Domingo) knows that Monique could use a place to belong, and the boys in her weight class only get to snicker for a few scenes before she’s got them all on their backs. Newman does a clever job of complicating the unavoidable gender dynamics of it all, angling the intensely choreographed sparring matches into an understated love triangle between Monique, her only friend (“Moonlight” breakout Jharrel Jerome), and her new jock crush (Jared Kemp). These teens are very literally wrestling with their feelings.
Monique is a natural in the ring, but that doesn’t come as much of a surprise — not only has she been forcing her way out of tight spots for most of her life, but the sport runs in her blood. Her dad, Darrel (a wounded and arrestingly complex Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was also a star wrestler at her age, not that it did him much good. Not that it’s doing him much good now. He’s out of jail, working cleanup at a ratty local restaurant, and an accidental run-in with his daughter lays out how the rest of this film is going to unfold.
It’s a magnificently staged encounter, the clenched distress on Emanuelle’s face registering how that initial shock sharpens with rage before softening into hope. It’s the best part of a beautiful performance, a single look powerful enough to trace the distance between the life Monique wants and the love that’s available to her.
Ashley Connor’s hyper-expressive handheld cinematography keeps that space in focus even when Newman strains to steer Monique towards her defining moment. A major subplot in which Darrel pressures his daughter into a series of underground cage fights feels glaringly contrived (and wildly unnecessary) in the context of a no-holds-barred coming-of-age drama that doesn’t really need to cheat. Monique’s choices seem real because she’s such a vital conduit for them, but they’re slightly cheapened by her father’s violent inability to be a decent option. Like a romantic-comedy in which the female lead is forced to choose between a lifeless dolt and the man of her dreams, “First Match” is hurt by how it effectively makes Monique’s biggest decision for her.
At least this isn’t a movie about winning the big match, or even one about Monique choosing which of her matches to fight — although both prospects begin to cloud the story in the third act. On the contrary, this is a movie about where strength comes from, who takes it from us, and how we get it back. It’s familiar territory, but “First Match” is such a powerful coming-of-age story because Monique makes us feel like she’s the first person to ever set foot there.