This Sundance Film Festival 2009 selection was written, directed, and producted by Emily Abt. “Toe to Toe” is a coming-of-age story about two girls from different backgrounds who come into conflict over lacrosse and a boy. Louisa Krause plays Jesse, a white girl from a rich family who has every opportunity she wants but an absent mother is always away on business leading her to seek out attention in any way she can, usually the cheapest form using her body. Sonequa Martin plays Tosha, a black girl from the poorer side of town whose dream of going to Princeton pushes her every single day to work harder than everyone else. Without many role models around to emulate, Tosha takes her strength from her grandmother’s tough love. Both girls being outsiders, they form an uneasy alliance put to the test constantly with competition on and off the field.
This movie sure doesn’t go for subtlety in any way. The dialogue is very obvious and simple at times but the overall themes are still relevant and it becomes a very difficult movie to watch. What isn’t said is more powerful than what is. The supporting cast is weak, but Krause and Martin rise above the material easily and add a great deal of substance to what otherwise may have been a surface value activisit piece.
Louisa Krause shows a great deal of bravery in Jesse’s world to debase herself and climb to the utter pit of low self esteem and depression. With how far this movie was going, I feared the director would take the easy way out and write in a suicide attempt, but thankfully she was left to social suicide instead which is more difficult since Jesse still has to live with the consequences of her actions. Her mommy issues run so deep that she has forgotten all codes of social morality and decency in her quest for someone, ANYONE to love her. It is almost as if she never matured past age 6 in situations of dependency and her cries for her mother are heartbreaking because they are like that of a baby from a senior in high school’s mouth. In a word, Jesse is pathetically sad and she doesn’t have any degree of self respect to pull herself out of the hole. Krause has guts to jump into a pond of someone so shallow with others but makes her so multi-faceted when she is alone with her thoughts.
Sonequa Martin’s strength in Tosha is the only thing keeping this movie from spiraling down into constant despair. Tosha is someone to hope for and root for and admits the difficulty of her challenges but never lets her dream become unattainable even when members of her own family try to bring her down. Tosha could easily be a one-note character in this regard but Martin brings many layers to her as well showing her weak moments, her doubts, and her sympathy for a fallen foe. Though Jesse has done nothing to deserve it, Tosha attempts to help her for the simple reason of salvation for the both of them. They might have some actual scuffles on the lacrosse field, but lacrosse really becomes a very minor point in the film as Jesse’s emotional issues seem to transcend all else and draw Tosha in as well. Martin’s intensity drives the character of Tosha to new heights.
Tosha’s Grandma is played by Leslie Uggams and she sermonizes life lessons at the drop of a hat and speaks so forcefully that it’s clear where the backbone of the family lies.
The rest of the cast doesn’t make notable strides. Silvestre Rasuk plays Rashid, the hot Lebanese deejay who attempts to court Tosha, then gets hit on by Jesse and while he pursues one, he’s just as likely to take the other when he’s horny so his dog of a human being just walks away with the scraps and doesn’t bring any meat to the situation. Ally Walker plays Claire and while I recognized her face from the TV series, The Profiler over a decade ago, her performance does not make up for her character’s lack of screen time as Jesse’s mother. Claire lives in a state of denial where her career is all that matters and takes her daughter’s tantrums as one would of a young child being weaned off parental dependency when she should take notice at the unusual age she is showing this emotional problems. There are hints of the sadness creeping through but the scene that really shows how she feels about her daughter is when she hears Jesse come in after after staying out all night and just rolls over in bed. These performances and the other stock characters thrown in serve their purposes in the film but aren’t memorable.
“Toe to Toe” has the sports competitiveness and I-saw-him-first boy conflict from “Bend It Like Beckham” with the promiscuous of the coming-of-age film “Thirteen” thrown together with every black kid trying to get out of Harlem type of story. It isn’t a fresh perspective but it still stings to watch.
This movie is released in limited release February 26th and will be in wider release on March 12th.