Emily Abt's Toe to Toe has got a lot of problems, but its primary difficulty is that it doesn't seem to have any idea what it wants to be. A coming-of-age drama? A tale of high school rivalry? A Bend It Like Beckham rip-off? An examination of Muslim issues? An exploration of race and class in suburban D.C.? An indictment of teen sexuality? A big hip-hop dance-off? Only Abt knows, and she's not telling. What comes across in the final product is a turgid melodrama, a narrative that is simultaneously hyper-busy and a total slog.
The focus is on two girls, both lacrosse players at a suburban D.C. high school. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is the black girl from the poor neighborhood, working hard on the field and in the classroom in hopes of getting into Princeton. Rich, white Jesse (Louisa Krause) is the new girl, but her bad-girl reputation arrives almost as quickly as she does. The girls make friends at first, hanging out and sharing lacrosse training montages, but the relationship goes sour in several predictable ways.
There are flashes of inspiration, and scenes here and there (like Tosha hanging out at home) with a nice, lived-in reality. But it's all so familiar; these familial conflicts and "opposite sides of the tracks" contrasts and teens behaving badly scenarios have been done to death in other, better pictures. Abt's screenplay (she wrote, produced, and directed) seems designed primarily to throw in a new subplot every ten minutes, which is presumably why we've got the business with the Muslim boyfriend or Jesse's lesbian stalker or the racist message on Tosha's locker or Jesse's bad case of the clap, and when all else fails, Abt shuts the picture down for a few minutes so we can watch some people we don't know dancing at a club.
The leads aren't half bad. Martin conveys Tosha's intelligence and stubbornness skillfully, giving the character dimensions that we suspect may not have been on the page. Krause (who appeared in The Babystiters a couple of years back) is even better, handling several difficult scenes and wild character swings gracefully.
But the whole enterprise has a made-for-TV-movie feel--the simplistic storytelling, the vanilla style, the on-the-nose dialogue, the unfortunate supporting performances--and by the time the story is taken over by the girls' rivalry for the same boy, it's operating at the level of an Afterschool Special (particularly in its puritanical notions of female sexuality). The final moments suggest what Abt was going for, and they're good, but the picture hasn't earned them. For most of its 104 interminable minutes (trust me, it feels longer), Toe to Toe is soapy bullshit.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.