One of the better coming of age dramas to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival since thirteen is writer/director Emily Abt's Toe to Toe; a tale of two girls, one white and rich, the other African American and poor, who become friends during their senior year at a Washington DC prep school. Toe to Toe is a social melodrama in the truest sense, addressing race, class, diversity and affirmative action. While Abt tackles race relations in a very serious manner, she wisely offers the standard teen dramas involving popularity, sexuality and materialism. Abt makes her dramatic feature filmmaking debut in an impressive fashion after directing a series of political docs. Best of all for LA-based specialty distributor Strand Releasing, which acquired Toe to Toe after its premiere at Sundance ’09, there are familiar teen characters and an adherence to the time tested rules of high school melodrama. Toe to Toe's best prospects for strong word of mouth lie with young adults who will immediately relate to the two female leads. Unfortunately for Strand, young adults are also a challenge to attract to arthouses in sizable numbers.
Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is a driven African American student of limited means. She’s on full scholarship at a Washington D.C. prep school. A tense but steady friendship forms between Tosha and fellow lacrosse teammate Jesse (Louisa Krause), a troubled white student from wealth. While competitive both on and off the lacrosse field, Tosha and Jesse also support each other. They may come from different income tax brackets but they are both somewhat out of place at the school. That is, until a racist act quickly brings their relationship to a dramatic end.
Newcomer Sonequa Martin is strong-willed and pretty as Tosha, a young woman too serious for her age and emotional health. Martin has the heart to play a teen desperate to escape poverty via a scholarship to Princeton. Her best moments involve heartache, scenes where she doubts her chances at attaining her dreams.
As the affluent Jesse, Louisa Krause resembles Kirsten Dunst with a girl-next-door prettiness, but beneath her freckly face is a dark desire to be popular even if it means being promiscuous. An experienced stage actress but new to films, Krause makes Jesse sympathetic through believable loneliness and poor self-esteem.
Veteran actress Leslie Uggams personifies Tosha's desire for success at all costs as her tough-as-nails grandmother. Silvestre Rasuk, who starred in the NY-set coming of age drama Raising Victor Vargas, provides dramatic sparks as Rashid, a handsome student liked by both Tosha and Jesse.
Toe to Toe is moving and more ambitious than a CW serial drama or the long-ago ABC After School Specials because its honesty outweighs its occasionally trite dialogue and sometimes false scenes. Modest production values and matter-of-fact, handheld photography emphasize the lead performances. Thankfully, Martin and Krause are up to the task.
While Abt is guilty of unloading a laundry list of teen conflicts—the absentee parent, a battle over a handsome boy at school—she manages a good balance between political intentions and old-fashioned teen melodrama. Toe to Toe also stands out as a quality calling card for Abt, whose previous films include the documentaries All of Us, about a doctor fighting AIDS in the Black community and Take It From Me, about welfare reform. With Toe to Toe, she proves herself a steady hand at drama.
The film's appeal to young audiences is solid, although attracting young adults to arthouse cinemas remains challenging nationwide. The hope for Abt and Strand Releasing is that the same young adults who rallied around President Barack Obama during his election campaign may also rally around this noteworthy race drama. Strong word of mouth may persuade older specialty audiences to seek out a film about young adults, although it's likely the largest audiences for Toe to Toe will come via home video, VOD or perhaps a new platform preferred by teen consumers. Perhaps Toe to Toe will be the film that tests what future platforms for arthouse film will be.
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Sonequa Martin, Louisa Krause and Leslie Uggams
Director/Screenwriter: Emily Abt
Producers: Susan Leber and Emily Abt
Running time: 104 min.
Release Date: February 19 NY/LA