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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Instant Gratification: “Lawrence of Arabia” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime

Headshot of Irish actor Peter O'Toole (L) and Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif in a still from the film, 'Lawrence of Arabia,' directed by David Lean, 1962. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Headshot of Irish actor Peter O’Toole (L) and Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif in a still from the film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ directed by David Lean, 1962. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Pick of the week: “Lawrence of Arabia” (Netflix) — This must be a huge honor for “Lawrence of Arabia” to be the Instant Gratification Pick of the Week, right? I mean, I could have gone with “Byzantium,” but I thought I’d throw a little love the way of literally one of the greatest movies ever made. Anyway, David Lean’s epic starring Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, the British adventure entranced and seduced by the desert sands, is a wonderful movie, and is presented here in its diamond-sharp HD restored edition.

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Instant Gratification: “Timbuktu” and four other good films on Amazon Prime and Netflix

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Pick of the week: “Timbuktu (Amazon Prime) — My full review is here. A small town in Mali chafes under the ironclad rule of fundamentalist Muslims in this Oscar-nominated drama which makes both oppressors and oppressed into three-dimensional human beings.

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Instant Gratification: “Wild Canaries” and four other good movies new to Netflix and Amazon Prime

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Wild Canaries” (Netflix) — My full review is here. It’s like Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” set among the artisanal cupcake set, as a Brooklyn couple try to figure out who killed the elderly lady in their building. It’s lightweight, fizzy fun, an homage to screwball comedies of the days of yore.

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Instant Gratification: “The Deep Blue Sea” and four other good movies to watch on Amazon Prime and Netflix

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Pick of the week: “The Deep Blue Sea (Amazon Prime)My full review is here. Not a super-intelligent shark to be found in Terence Rattigan’s beautiful film about a woman in post-World War II London (a wonderful Rachel Weisz) leaving the security of her older husband for a handsome but shallow pilot (Tom Hiddleston).

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Instant Gratification: “Listen Up Philip” and four other good movies to watch on Amazon Prime and Netflix

Listen-Up-Philip-Photo3-JasonSchwartzman-JosephineDeLaBaume (1)

Pick of the week: “Listen Up Philip” (Amazon Prime)My full review is here. Jason Schwartzman is hilariously awful as an arrogant young writer who finds that success only feeds and confirms his misanthropy in this acerbic comedy from Alex Ross Perry.

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Sundance Film Festival: “What Happened, Miss Simone?” dives into the eye of Hurricane Nina

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There’s a double meaning inherent in the title of the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night.
At face value, the question seems innocuous: “What things occurred?” But the undercurrent of the question, which was posed by Maya Angelou in a poem, is “What went so wrong?”

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