There is a curious strain of low energy that infects contemporary American independent film, as though cinema were meant is to emulate the uncomfortable moments of strained conversation. Perhaps it is a natural rebellion against the previous generation of Sundance kids, Quentin Tarantino, the Andersons, and Kevin Smith, who defined their films through colorful freneticism, crisp dialogue, and postmodern pastiche. Or perhaps, as is the case with Emily Abt’s Toe to Toe (a 2009 Sundance entry), it is a clumsy pursuit of social realism, combining formulaic narrative structures with the “found” moments of documentary film or, to put it more crassly, reality television.
Toe to Toe tells the story of Tosha (Sonequa Martin), an impoverished African-American student at an elite Washington D.C. private school, who dreams of turning hard work and lacrosse talent into a Princeton education. On the first day of practice, she crosses paths with Jesse (Louise Krause), a privileged but troubled (read: promiscuous) Caucasian girl bouncing around the private school circuit. Though they have nothing in common but a murkily defined talent and passion for lacrosse, the two become unlikely friends. Their friendship becomes strained as they both compete for the affection of Lebanese-American student Rashid (Silvestre Rasuk), a race in which Jesse literally has a leg up over Tosha, so to speak. When a racist message appears on Tosha’s locker, everyone assumes Jesse is to blame.
Abt attempts to open her film with a bang: Tosha, in a lacrosse face-off, chants the words “black bitch” as a reverse psychological sports mantra. It suggests we are in for an aggressive sort of racial polemic, but the energy quickly dissipates when Jesse enters the frame. After Jesse offers to practice with Tosha, the two are by the next scene instant friends, as though the vast divide between the two could be bridged by an off-camera cradling drill. In fact, both never forge any sort of on-screen connection, their friendship conveyed only through a series of awkward smiles. Abt also gives us a sense of the real differences between her protagonists in an early montage: Tosha avoids gang members’ taunts as she walks through her neighborhood to her loving Christian family, while Jesse drives to a lavish suburban home, where her maid serves as a surrogate mother. What Jesse needs is her mother’s love, which Abt subtly clues us into as Jesse longingly gazes at a photo of her absent mother.
Once Abt has created this duality, she seems uncertain which direction to go and starts to spread herself too thin. The school the girls attend reflects the nature of Washington’s multinational elite, yet the dynamics of the various ethnic cliques are for the most part glossed over. It is stated that students fetishize Tosha for her “hood” qualities, yet we never get a good sense of how this plays out among her group of friends, the wealthy black students. In fact, they seem to get along quite well. And there are also glaring details Abt chooses to ignore. I doubt, for instance, that a private school would expel a student for writing “black bitch” on one girl’s locker and then ignore the fact that “slutster” is on another girl’s locker for the entirety of the school year.
By designating Jesse a different sort of “other” due to her overt sexuality, Abt only further waters down her film’s thematic thrust. Is this a film exploring the changing nature of social and economic differences or about the pressures facing teenage girls through the temptation of drugs and alcohol? Throw in the forays into Christian moralizing and Abt begins to wander into Lifetime Originals territory. Ultimately, Abt seems torn between a desire to create an inspirational female power ballad and one that conforms to the conventions of modern independent film.