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Toe to Toe (Movie Review)

February 28, 2010

Toe to Toe

Written and directed by Emily Abt

Rating: Unrated

Limited Release

Toe to Toe traces the parallel lives, and sometimes friendship of two girls on the prep school lacrosse team. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is an intense, driven African American girl from a poor neighborhood, who plays lacrosse because no African American girls do. Her drive and her dream is to get a scholarship to Princeton. Leslie Uggams does a terrific job as Tosha’s grandmother, fueling and encouraging that dream.

Jesse, a rich, blonde, white girl is a classmate of Tosha’s on the team. She’s a party girl- booze, drugs and boys have gotten her kicked out of prep schools before.  Tosha and Jesse are friends. In a complicated, wary, sometimes jealous, sometimes angry way. The movie, and the story, lets them be complex and uneasy with each other.

This movie blew me away. Nuanced acting, script and editing explores each of the girls’ separate lives and shifting narratives. But– talking about the contrasts the story sets up, or the friendship between the girls– makes this sound like a much simpler movie than it is. It’s not a feel-good buddy movie. It almost has a documentary feel to it, raw nerves exposed with an intense dignity. The facts of these characters’ situations and choices laid out, with a sense of presenting a narrative, rather than pushing a conclusion. I saw it with my parents, and Mom commented on the “really subtle directing, especially the performances of the teenagers, they’re very real, they seem very themselves.” Like a documentary, the characters are very immersively, authentically themselves.

The movie’s a brilliant example of show-don’t-tell. Overwhelmed by Jesse’s lavish house and elegant bathroom, Tosha takes a tentative sniff of a bottle of perfume.  Jesse, stands uncertain with a tray in the crowded cafeteria, then retreats to eat lunch in the hall.

You will want to talk this movie over after you see it. You will want to trace how the story is crafted, how even short glimpsed scenes build the story, build each girl’s life.

Some parts of it were hellishly hard to watch. As Tosha heads home to Anacostia, a crowd of neighborhood girls gangs up on her, taunting and beating her up. The portrayal of Jesse, drunk and partying is unstinting- she’s down on her knees in front of a boy, or draped across two, head lolling to one side as they grope her while she’s too stoned to move. But still- even those awful moments have a well-crafted dignity.

It’s not all grim seriousness and struggle. Music is almost a character in its own right, with Rashid, a Muslim boy (and jealous arguing point for the two girls) DJ-ing a thumping, Middle Eastern rap/hiphop fusion for frenetic dance-club scenes. And, despite tempestuous jealousy and misunderstanding, Tosha and Jesse do have moments of easy friendship.

Toe to Toe is in limited release right now. I wouldn’t have known about it if Emily Abt weren’t teaching at Princeton, a visiting prof like my Dad. I want this movie to do well, though, to get seen, to get talked about. To get awards, and lots of them.

Something Dad brought up that made me curious— compare and contrast Toe to Toe, to Bend it Like Beckham, another movie about teen girls, friendship, race issues, and sports. Will have to rewatch it.

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