Movie Review - First Match
The last film I saw about high school wrestling was Win Win (2011). This movie, written and directed by Olivia Newman, is an adaptation of her short film of the same name in 2010, but it is a poor black girl's version of Win Win, except Newman's movie isn't a comedy, so it isn't buoyed by great comedic performances. It instead relies on the drama. That drama focuses on the relationship between the main character, a black girl and her father. This movie also gets points for exploring that, which is too rarely explored in mainstream Hollywood productions.
Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time tried to explore that relationship of a black girl and her father. It used that relationship as a crutch or a MacGuffin that leaves the movie being about self-esteem or half-heartedly being about a sibling's relationship. The two best recent examples in cinema of a black girl and her father is Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Akeelah and the Bee (2006). Other than that, the only Hollywood films that I could point toward are Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls (2007) and Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994), and those are more family dramas that tackle other things in equal measure if not greater than that of the black girl and her father's relationship.
There are examples of stories about a black girl and her father told outside of Hollywood in independent productions that are small-scale and mostly overlooked. There have even been those in the sports genre. The one most recent that is probably the most outstanding is the documentary T-Rex (2016). That doc by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper is outstanding because not only does it juggle the interpersonal relationships but it also juggles socioeconomic issues as they relate to the sport she's in as a whole. It comments on the sport and puts it into somewhat of a larger context. Newman's movie here doesn't comment on the sport at all. The sport here is simply a plot device and backdrop.
That's why the sport here is simply a plot device. It's simply a way to connect Mo and her father, Darrel, played by Yahya Abdul-Matteen II (The Get Down). Darrel used to be a wrestler or a coach way back before he went to prison. Darrel shows not much interest in his daughter, but Mo thinks she can get his attention by impressing him with her wrestling skills, which she somehow picked up from him as well as her friend, Omari, played by Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight), but it could have been anything, any sport or any activity. There's really no specificity about wrestling here.
Because Darrel would involve her in an illegal fight makes him a bad dad. Mo does end up with serious bruises and black eyes but that could happen if she were aspiring to be a boxer, a MMA fighter or even a football player. In fact, boys who play football are susceptible to serious injury including concussions. Boys who play basketball suffer serious injuries too. Perhaps, that's why Newman chooses wrestling, which doesn't involve hitting or as aggressive strikes, but what if Darrel were more into boxing? Yes, boxing is regulated and safety precautions are put into place but so are all the aforementioned sports and it wouldn't totally protect a person. It also doesn't change the aggressiveness involved. If I'm supposed to not like Darrel for getting Mo involved in these fights, I also must not like every parent who allows their child to do boxing or learn martial arts or play football.
A more intriguing film about a young girl embracing a sport or coming into her own physical presence is the aforementioned T-Rex or even the drama The Fits (2016), starring Royalty Hightower. Hightower was great in that film, but so is Emanuelle here. All of the young actors here do a great job. They exude initially this sexist machismo, faux swagger and chest-thumping, something Mo thinks she needs to exude too. Obviously, by the end, they all learn to drop it and just be kind and forgiving of each other.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.
Available on Netflix.