Earlier in the series, I promised via correspondence with Everett Maroon that I would prioritize features that were available on Netflix Instant. I haven’t held true to that, so I thought this week I would only review films you can stream off their website. Of course, not everyone is a Netflix user or has constant Internet access. However, I thought focusing on a few of these titles might make it easier for some to follow along and not have to rely on snail mail to do so. However, if you have a local independent video store, please give them your business!
We start with writer-director Emily Abt’s Toe to Toe, which is the most recent selection in the series to have a theatrical release. I highly anticipated it after reading some intriguing reviews, but wasn’t able to see it. A similar fate befell Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank that year, which considered a girl’s life in an Essex slum and is getting released on Criterion early next year. I happened to discover it was streaming online after attempting to put it in my queue for later viewing and was excited to be able to include it as a late entry and shake things up. As it turns out, it’s great alongside last Friday’s consideration of Real Women Have Curves. Both films were indie darlings, largely because of their interrogation of race and teenage girlhood. In addition, Toe to Toe considers interracial concerns across class lines. Also, like Whip It!, another 2009 title with a female director, it features athletic girls.
The athletes in Toe to Toe are formidable lacrosse players who represent their high school in Washington D.C. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is a working-class black girl who commutes to school and is determined to attend Princeton on a scholarship. Jesse (Louisa Krause, in a role Kirstin Dunst would’ve booked between The Virgin Suicides and Crazy/Beautiful a decade ago) is characterized by her teammate as tragic and rich, squandering her talents on the field with hard partying and reckless sexual encounters with boys who pass her around.
The stakes and conditions are very different for these girls. Tosha works tirelessly to get exemplary grades. She devotes much of her intellectual energy to math because, as her supportive grandmother (Leslie Uggams) points out, a black female lacrosse player with peerless mathematical ability will be exceptional to Princeton’s admissions board. Jesse doesn’t care about school. At first it seems to be because her family’s largess doesn’t necessitate it. However, it’s clear that she’s too busy trying to insist herself upon her distant mother, Claire (Ally Walker), a political player who’s always departing for a conference or meeting. Tosha lives with her extended family (including brother Kevin, played by Gaius Charles, who I loved as Smash on Friday Night Lights) in a small apartment and dodges neighborhood mean girls on the way home from school. Jesse encounters no one in the family’s minimalist palace other than her hired caretaker Fatimah (Maha Chehlaoui), who occasionally leaves so she can tend to her own family. Both girls have mothers who are overworked and somewhat distant from their daughters. While it’s implied rather than explicitly discussed, both girls’ fathers are not on the scene.
In a lesser movie, the girls would be rivals. Their racial and class differences would inform their animosity, potentially only overcome in heavy-handed teaching moments. One of the best things about Toe to Toe is that the girls are never exactly friends. The only real bond they share is on the field, and sometimes that is a tenuous relationship. It may seem that Tosha distances herself from Jesse 30 minutes in because her crush Rashid (Silvestre Rasuk), a classmate and local deejay, takes a carnal interest in Jesse. However, she could be motivated by her disgust for how much Jesse takes for granted in her own life. Yet they’re too aware of each other’s potential and too concerned for their well-being to be enemies. Even if they don’t fully understand each other, there’s something fundamental that they grasp about one another, that always allows one to count on the other. Notably, it’s a mutual arrangement.
I also appreciate how the film has a political agenda, but doesn’t hammer at it the way that I believe Real Women did. This is a cinematic universe inhabited by realized people, not empty vessels for stereotypes and stock characters. Much of this is attributed to the writing which balances the bravado, play-acting, and bracing candor of teen speak, with each actress finding her character’s particular voice. I also applaud Abt’s ability as a screenwriter to create a story with a considerable amount of plot, character motivation, and complex tertiary figures that fall into space and hover in and out of orbit much the way these things transpire in real life. The naturalistic production design reflects this as well. Seemingly nothing happens, until life intervenes and people insert themselves into it.
This isn’t to say that Toe to Toe is without fault. I appreciate how the film depicts Jesse’s romantic projections onto Rashid as callously one-sided and considers Rashid’s actions as hypocritical to his religious affiliation. However, I take issue with how he is represented, as he is the only prominent Muslim character. Likewise, I find Jesse’s friend Mina (Hina Abdullah), a student photographer who is clearly in love with her friend, to have considerable potential until she is revealed to be obsessive and willing to breach student conduct in an attempt to win her crush’s affection. While the characters are still complex and interesting, these particular developments give me pause
I also recognize that Jesse’s sexuality must be explored in some fashion, but there are some troubling moments. One is when she has sex with Rashid in the woods, which suggests a Cinemax After Dark adaptation of Twilight. Toward the end of the movie, she is haunted by all the guys who have mounted her, which is chillingly shown from her perspective underneath and obscured by their heft. While not necessarily exploitative, these scenes are manipulative and are two scenarios among many that underline her sexual behavior as self-destructive. I would have gladly traded some of those scenes for more field time or greater consideration of Tosha, who gets more focus at the beginning of the film and is far more interesting. I haven’t seen Martin in anything before, but after witnessing her grounded performance, I’ll keep my eyes open.
That said, I liked Toe to Toe. It is a well-intended, complicated film we should be debating and encouraging similar projects in production. Welcome to the canon.