To call filmmaker Emily Abt’s compelling coming-of-age tale “Toe to Toe” the debut film of the New Obama Cinema, qualifies her debut feature drama as an American movie that treats race and class with insight and enthusiasm equal to the excitement over President elect Barack Obama and his impact on race relations.
Making its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival at the Eccles Theatre, the largest of the Park City, Utah venues, “Toe to Toe” is smart, honest storytelling about Tosha (Sonequa Martin), a driven African American student on full scholarship at a Washington D.C. prep school and her competitive relationship with Jesse (Louisa Krause), a troubled white student from wealth.
The large crowd, a mix of industry attendees and general ticket holders, was a perfect audience to watch Abt’s moving and surprising drama about two teenage girls from clashing class and race backgrounds. “Toe to Toe” is the most driven of the American movies so far at Sundance; a well told, swift-moving story with standout lead performances, solid commercial elements and high prospects for enthusiastic word-of-mouth.
While much about the relationship between Tosha and Jesse feels honest and believable, Abt does occasionally fall into the trap of dramatic exaggeration in order to heighten the film’s emotional climax (there is a lesbian subplot that feels out of place). It’s a common misstep for someone tackling his or her first feature drama. To Abt’s credit, the film’s poignant moments far outweigh its stumbles. By “Toe to Toe’s” surprising finish, one walks away with new thoughts and feelings about race, diversity as well as questions about how today’s teens will address class and race differently from their parents.
Abt moves us with her storytelling, and as a welcome bonus, makes us think; quite an achievement for someone making their feature drama debut.
With the exception of veteran actress Leslie Uggams as Tosha’s encouraging grandma, “Toe to Toe” relies on fresh faces instead of a marquee cast of well-known names.
Louisa Krause, a veteran of stage plays but new to feature films, excels as Jesse, a lonely girl who sees promiscuity as a means to popularity. Krause, boasting girl-next-door prettiness similar to Kirsten Dunst, is the most dynamic of the film’s leads, swaying between bad decisions and good intentions with believability.
Strong-willed, pretty Sonequa Martin, also making her feature film debut, excels as the heart and conscience of the film, offering enough passion, heartache and the occasional laugh to make “Toe to Toe” a drama worth embracing.
Silvestre Rasuk, who starred in another standout coming-of-age drama, “Raising Victor Vargas,” provides plenty of romance as Rashid, a handsome student who catches the eyes of both Tosha and Jesse.
While “Toe to Toe,” available for sale, is the latest in an impressive line of coming-of-age Sundance dramas — think of “Thirteen” — its strong lead performances and smart treatment of race and class make it a standout movie.
It’s a triumph for Abt whose previous films include the documentaries “All of Us,” about a doctor fighting AIDS in the Black community and “Take It From Me,” about welfare reform.
“Toe to Toe” is complex and multi-layered and I expect unanimous praise for Martin and Krause, both beautifully confused as two teen friends battling to overcome the troubles in their lives. I also expect praise for Abt, the storytelling who holds all the angst, successes and setbacks together, making this girl’s tale capable of engaging all audiences.
If that doesn’t earn Abt a shot at directing future feature dramas, nothing does.