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'First Match': A coming-of-age movie in which a girl wrestles with boys – literally

Elvire Emmanuelle stars as Mo in
Elvire Emmanuelle stars as Mo in "First Match," a Netflix original movie.
Elvire Emmanuelle stars as Mo in
A scene from Olivia Newman's film, "First Match."
Nina Robinson

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"First Match" is coming-of-age movie in which a girl comes into her own by joining a boys wrestling team. It's the first feature film for writer-director Olivia Newman and it's the first lead role for Elvire Emanuelle, who plays Mo – the girl at the center of the story.

Newman developed the feature from a 2010 short film by the same name that she made in graduate school. For that movie she cast a girl wrestler from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn named Nyasa Bakker. Olivia Newman says that Bakker and her friends inspired a lot of the character of Mo for the feature-length film.

Newman and Emanuelle recently spoke with The Frame's John Horn about making the story authentic.

Interview highlights

Olivia Newman on her introduction to girls who – having no team of their own – join boys wrestling teams:

NEWMAN: Prior to going to graduate school for directing, I worked at a film distribution company called Women Make Movies. I was in the marketing department and one of the films that I helped to promote was a documentary called “Girl Wrestler.” That was my entry into the world of girl wrestling. I became obsessed with this idea that girls would wrestle on boys teams. When I made the short film for my thesis, I was really interested in the experience of being a girl in a male-dominated sport — in a full-contact sport. I interviewed every girl wrestler that was on a boys team in New York. 

Elvire Emanuelle on how she connected with her character, Mo:

EMANUELLE: Mo had a different life than I did, but I understood her struggles. Although mine were different, I feel like there are different ways that I wanted to be loved, or that I wanted to persevere or that I wanted to fight for something that other people didn’t understand. For me, that’s how it was personal. I found this was such an important story to tell. I’d never read anything like it or watched anything like it. 

How Olivia Newman, who is white, made sure that the characters, who are all people of color, are authentic:

NEWMAN: I did a lot of research into Brownsville and discovered that they have these underground girl fight clubs. There was a documentary with amazing access to the actual fights that I watched and used that as my research. And then the film went through [the] Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Director’s Lab. I had a lot of advisors and I would always say, I want all of your advisors of color to be my mentors. I wanted to make sure my readers were as diverse as possible. So, Walter Mosley and Kasi Lemmons and Tyger Williams were important readers for me on this script, and they read drafts even after the labs.

Rodrigo Garcia was also an important mentor from Sundance. One of the most important readings I had was with a group of teenagers from Brownsville where they came and we did a table read and I cast them in different parts. And then afterwards said, OK guys, be brutal. Tell me anything that jumps out that doesn’t feel authentic. And then the final process is just working with the actors and hearing their thoughts on the characters and making sure that the characters feel really multi-dimensional and real.

Elvire Emanuelle on how she made sure her character felt true:

EMANUELLE: [Olivia]’s such a good listener, even when we were on set she was always trying to learn and absorb information. It was always about being authentic. If there was something that didn’t feel natural — unless it was something that needed to propel the story, that needed to be in there for someone to understand it — Libby was always just open to the story being real. She would always seek feedback on what sounded natural.


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