A teen tale that hits home
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 2, 2010
In the modest D.C.-based film "Toe to Toe," Jesse and Tosha are seniors on the lacrosse team at a posh suburban Washington prep school that, like a jammed go-go club (featuring the Backyard Band) and other area backdrops, will strike a familiar chord with local filmgoers.
The two protagonists of this resourceful, if occasionally forced, teen melodrama make an unlikely pair: Jesse (Louisa Krause) is the spoiled, lonely daughter of privilege who manifests a troubling emotional neediness by engaging in compulsive, promiscuous sex. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is serious, focused and driven in her dream of getting into an Ivy League school, despite a background of financial hardship and meager social support.
As "Toe to Toe" opens, Jesse and Tosha seem well on their way to being team rivals, but instead they become improbable friends. The somber Tosha visits Jesse at her architecturally pristine mansion (Jesse's mom is a globetrotting NGO executive, risibly drawn as a harsh limousine-liberal stereotype), and Jesse makes her first sojourn to Anacostia to take Tosha home. The fiction debut of writer-director Emily Abt, "Toe to Toe" evinces an alert sense of the economic and racial disparities in Washington, where privilege and powerlessness exist within such dizzying proximity.
"Toe to Toe" often feels like "Bend It Like Beckham" meets "Crazy/Beautiful." And with its schematic plot and characterizations, there are times when it feels less like an organic story than an essay in which social-issue boxes are being checked off with mechanistic regularity. (The most egregious example is a climactic scene of little-girl-lost grief that spills over into gratuitous histrionics.)
But "Toe to Toe" deserves credit for delving into the rich dynamics of interracial friendship and teenaged social tectonics. And it features some terrific acting. In a bold, even fearless performance, Krause strikes an assured balance between emotional fragility and provocative physicality. And Martin makes an exceptionally promising debut as a young woman of catlike composure and self-possession. Her scenes with Leslie Uggams, as Tosha's vinegary grandmother, pay resonant homage to generations of anonymous self-sacrifice and fierce determination that keep hope alive.
Contains profanity, drug use and sexual situations involving teenagers.