Netflix Movie of the Week: A teenager wrestles with her demons in ‘First Match’

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“Netflix Movie of the Week” is an occasional feature that highlights a worthy original film that has premiered on the streaming site. Netflix plans to release a whopping 80 movies in 2018, and a lot of them don’t get much of a promotional push and/or are hard to find on the site. “Movie of the Week” hopes to help rectify that.

A movie critic recently suggested that, aside from Oscar contenders like “Mudbound,” most Netflix original movies are intended to be merely okay, content to be playing in the background while we’re playing HQ Trivia or doing something else.

That won’t be possible with “First Match.”

Writer-director Olivia Newman’s powerful coming-of-age drama had me in a tight hold within the first few minutes and refused to let go, thanks to Newman’s sensitive and authentic screenplay, some thrilling sequences, and a breakout star performance by Elvire Emanuelle as Monique, a Brooklyn teenager.

The film, which premiered Friday, March 30, opens with a lyrical shot of girls’ clothes, pink and white, fluttering in the air as if they were flying. But the film quickly comes crashing down to the earth – the clothes are being thrown out the window by Monique’s caretaker, who accuses her of sleeping with her boyfriend. (As it happens, she’s right.)

The caretaker is the latest in a series of foster homes and crash pads that have made up Monique’s life over the last few years. On the street, she dresses confidently and beats down anyone who dares to cross her. But, thanks to Emanuelle’s layered and empathetic performance, we can see that this is a role she’s learning how to play, not her authentic self.

Monique hits rock bottom when she sees a man on the street and realizes it’s her ex-con father Darrell (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has been out of prison for a while and didn’t bother to try and find her. She idolized her father, a former high school wrestling star who taught her how to wrestle when she was a girl, and still keeps his old notebook full of dreams among her possessions, like a talisman.

In attempt to win her way back into Darrell’s good graces, Monique tries out for her high school’s all-boy wrestling team, and is good enough to make the cut. There’s some resistance among the boys, but the coach (the terrific Colman Domingo) is nurturing and sympathetic, the sort of role model who can say something like “There’s no such thing as losing. There’s only winning and learning” and mean it.

Monique does a lot of winning and a lot of learning in “First Match.” The wrestling scenes shot by Ashley Connor are exciting and intimate, the camera pulled in so tight on the two combatants that some cameraman must have been accidentally taken to the mat at some point during production.

But Newman backgrounds the sports movie element of the film in favor of a character study of Monique and a search for some kind of home, be it with her father or with a team. The choice is not easy – we see Monique’s happiness as Darrell starts coming to her matches and coaching her again. But Darrell may not be invested in Monique so much as seeing the reflection of his own faded glory in the ring, which can lead them both into trouble.

Emanuelle is so good at Monique – tough, broken and surprisingly funny at times (when an opponent sees he’s going to fight a girl, and asks “Is this even allowed?”, Monique snaps back “Are you even allowed?”) “First Match” doesn’t seem to be getting the promotional push from Netflix that some of its bigger movies are getting, but it’s well worth seeking out.

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Beloit International Film Festival: “Virginia Minnesota” is an engaging comedy-drama from next door

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Take a Wendigo, a wisecracking robot and a few old secrets, and you might just have the makings of a superior comedy-drama.

Or Superior comedy-drama.

“Virginia Minnesota,” which plays Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival (its second-ever screening after premiering at Cinequest earlier in the week) is an engaging movie from writer-director Daniel Stine that takes place in the title town, of course, as well as on the shores of Lake Superior in Grand Marais. A more welcoming invitation for the region is hard to imagine being filmed.

Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) is a travel blogger who tours the country with an unlikely companion, a “robot” (really just a rolling suitcase with a Siri-type device attached). But her travels are taking her back to Minnesota, to the reform school she was once placed in as a girl.

The woman who ran the home has died, and Lyle and several of her classmates have returned home for the reading of the will and to reconnect. (Stine has a small role as the woman’s son.) The visit stirs up memories, not all of them pleasant. Honestly, the repartee between the women is so engaging that I would have been happy to just keep the movie there and let the wine flow.

But one woman is absent – Addison (Aurora Perrineau), the wild child of the bunch, a free spirit and loose cannon who hops from tourist job to tourist job. Lyle is sent to go fetch her, and as the two old friends take a meandering road trip back, dig deeper into the buried secrets that have kept them apart since childhood. The journey gets progressively more and more zany, including an apparent run-in with a Wendigo (although Addison’s mother may be more ferocious).

Tone is a tricky thing to manage, and “Virginia Minnesota” sometimes swerves over the lines. Sometimes the drama veers into sentimentality and pathos. Sometimes the jokes feel too silly and sitcommy for such a character-driven film. (On the other hand, the robot, voiced by Aurora’s father, “Lost” actor Harold Perrineau, is the silliest running joke of all, but still had me chuckling throughout.)

But the chemistry between the female-led cast is so strong that it carries the film over any narrative bumps. The film also has unusually tight and sharp editing for such a low-budget indie, the shots capturing the idiosyncratic beauty of the region and giving the film a snappy rhythm.

“Virginia Minnesota” has its premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival with an encore screening at 5 p.m. Sunday. For locations, tickets, and other information about the festival, visit beloitfilmfest.org.