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“Toe to Toe” steps over stereotypical racial stories and springs out with an emotional verve and confidence that won over an appreciative Sundance audience. A strong contender for awards in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, this hard-forged movie is a winning debut for filmmaker Emily Abt.
Sociologists tell us that interracial friendships between kids generally end at 14. This story starts about three years later as two high school seniors forge a friendship on their prep school’s lacrosse team.
They are polar-opposite girls on the socioeconomic landscape. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) dwells in the poverty hole of Washington D.C., the blighted Anacostia area. She’s black and determined to rise out of her ghetto surroundings and mind set; in short, she wants to do things that smash racial stereotypes: play a sport black girls don’t play and attend a college, Princeton, blacks don’t aspire to attend. Jesse (Louisa Krause) hails from posh Bethesda, Md., and is an exhibitionist dying for attention. Neglected by a careerist, workaholic mom, Jesse essentially is parentless.
This story flip-flop — with the inner-city girl having the nurturing guidance, albeit a grandmother, and the rich, suburban white girl essentially growing up on her own — is emblematic of the sociological and story cliches Abt smashes and turns upside down in her compelling tale. This powerful story indulges no pat racial-drama conventions and rings true throughout.
Highest marks to Abt — who wrote, directed and produced — for her perceptive and scorching portrait of teenage friendship. Her gritty storytelling imbues “Toe” with a winning glow.
Martin is superb as the competitive, highly driven black girl; her nuanced performance roils with inner conflicts. As the attention-starved suburban girl, Krause transcends the usual poor-little-rich-girl markings with an all-out and wonderfully messy depiction. As Tosha’s inspirational and taskmaster grandma, Leslie Uggams wallops with a robust and heartfelt performance.
Technical contributions also win high grades, including cinematographer Alan Jacobsen’s shrewd high school scopings. Composers Ion Furjanic and Sanford Livingston invigorate “Toe” with an ascendant, raw score.
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