Monday, February 22, 2010

Emily Abt's TOE TO TOE opens; documentarian turns to narrative

Two teens -- one black the other white -- bond and rupture over Lacrosse, school, boys and self-image in documentary filmmaker Emily Abt's new narrative feature TOE TO TOE, with mixed results. Because the girls are played by a couple of vibrant actresses -- Sonequa Martin (shown right, two photos below, and at bottom) as Tasha, and Louisa Krause (three photos below and bottom, right) as Jesse -- the mix pans out a bit more positive than negative.

Ms Abt, shown at left, is dealing here with themes similar to those found in many documentaries -- the difficulties of holding families together in our current age; color, class and self-image; male and female roles in Black families -- and as her film moves along, it becomes clear that she has put into play many of these themes. Too many, as it turns out. One scene, featuring a number of the characters waiting on line to get into a rap concert, threatens to becomes a sociology lecture by the time the kids gain entry. Abt also relies on true-but-tired tropes like the absentee mother (gone missing to work) and the strong Black grandma, but here, at least, she has, as writer, given some depth and variation to the roles. Ally Walker plays the mom with an impatient conviction, while Leslie Uggams does a crackerjack job with Grandma, bringing a nasty edge, zero tolerance for religion and a slightly foul mouth that light up the proceedings noticeably.

What makes the film interesting (for awhile) is how both of our "heroines" are outsiders.  Jesse eats lunch alone, in the hallway, while Tasha seems not to fit in quite anywhere, even in her own home.  (This school does not smack of "Mean Girls.")  No surprise that it's a guy who puts the dent in the twosome's relationship.  Silvestre Rasuk (above, left:, who'll remind you of his brother, Victor) plays him with an interesting combination of charm and seeming sweetness that curdles midway along into one of the more unpleasant males to recently jar the screen.

Also on the positive side is each girl's home life, pictured in a more nuanced and complicated manner than you might expect.  This is offset by too many coincidences, that nagging sense of being lectured to -- plus a finale, the big surprise of which will probably not strike you as such.  While Ms Martin is properly alert, reticent and suspicious, it is Ms Krause (at right) who steals the film.  We've seen this character countless times already -- the lonely (and attractive) rebel without a cause -- but Krause imbues her with such fire and sadness that she wins us over even when she is at her most annoying.

Toe to Toe, distributed by Strand Releasing, opens Friday, February 26, at the Village East Cinema, and perhaps elsewhere in the weeks to come.  If not, look for it eventually on DVD.

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