Emily Abt's Toe to Toe is a raw look at a complex set of problems -- race and class -- told in stirring and straight-forward fashion.
At once a tale of teen girls jockeying over friendship, prestige, boys and their own identities, Toe to Toe features two exceptionally layered performances at its center, as well as ideas that don't necessarily sort themselves out in neat and easily summarized fashion.
Abt's film focuses on two seniors at a Washington, D.C.-area prep school, who meet on the first day of tryouts of the school's lacrosse team. Both Tosha (Sonequa Martin) and Jessie (Louisa Krause) are new transfers -- Tosha from a Baltimore Catholic school, Jessie from a series of private schools from which she's been, well, forced to withdraw because of her wild behavior.
Jessie is a child of privilege, but also the product of a single-parent household in which the father is long gone and the mother (Ally Walker), some sort of corporate muckety-muck, is largely absent. Jessie obviously has daddy issues, seeking popularity through promiscuity. But she's self-aware enough to know that having a reputation isn't the same thing as being popular.
She's also a black-culture lover, a wannabe who is drawn to what she sees as Tosha's street cred. Tosha, after all, commutes to the school from the low-income neighborhood of Anacostia, where she shares a tiny townhouse with her mother, brothers, niece and, occasionally, her grandmother (Leslie Uggams).
But where Tosha seems street to Jessie and the black American princesses at her school, she's a lacrosse-stick-carrying, book-reading, upwardly-striving nerd to the girls in her neighborhood. She's bullied and mocked; her only refuge is the discipline she has instilled in herself, her focus being a full-ride scholarship to Princeton based on her grades and her lacrosse skills.
Jessie tries to befriend Tosha but seems to give all the wrong signals: stalking the same boy who has a crush on Tosha, chasing boys in the same way she has in the past (despite telling Tosha, "I've changed"), getting in her way on the lacrosse field.
Tosha, meanwhile, is battling to stay focused, even as the universe seems to work hard at crushing her spirit and her drive. She has no time for boys (though a natural interest), gets little support from her family (other than her wonderfully steely grandmother) and must walk a gantlet of abuse just to get from the bus stop to her front door every night.
As she explores these two different worlds, Abt incorporates a number of elements that give the film truth, flavor and heart. She works in elements of the local go-go music scene (specific to D.C. and Baltimore), through the DJ aspirations of Rashid (Silvestre Rasuk), the classmate both girls are involved with. Rashid himself is a bit of a departure: a hip-hop Muslim who wants to mix go-go with Middle-Eastern rhythms to create a new cultural synthesis (though he chooses the unfortunate nom de spin of DJ Sand Nig). But his urges run counter to Islam's teaching, where Jessie comes into it.
The film builds to a climax that seems a shade contrived, but forget about that and focus on the performances by Martin and Krause, two of the freshest young female faces in years. Krause has a wild-child looseness that can't mask what is obviously a gaping hole in her soul, one her mother can't seem to notice and no one else can fill. She makes this "tragic rich girl" (as Tosha calls her) a character whose self-destructive acting-out is understandable and moving, without being clichéd.
Martin is even better, finding the reserves of inner strength and ambition that drive Tosha forward. She's a sensitive soul who hates the hard shell she's been forced to cultivate. She also resents the fact that people admire her strength, as though it is both an infinite and easily tapped reserve, instead of an effort she must make every minute of her life.
Toe to Toe prods and provokes and ultimately can't help but move you. Shot on a shoestring, it has a sophistication to its storytelling and acting far beyond its means. Find it; you won't be sorry.