In general, I have a rule about walking out of movies. I just don’t do it. For some reason I have always held tight to the belief that it is respectful to the filmmaker — especially in an environment such as Sundance — to give the movie its fair shake. This rule brought much pain to my life last year, with films such as Downloading Nancy and Funny Games leaving me on the edge of despair, yearning to rip my eyes from my skull. And while writer/director Emily Abt’s melodramatic soap opera Toe to Toe didn’t have me reaching for acid to pour on my face, it will go down as the first film of Sundance 2009 that had me eying both my watch and the exit door.
Set in suburban Washington D.C., Toe to Toe follows two teens from completely different sides of the tracks. There is the young African American girl, Tosha, who has fought long and hard to rise above her impoverished life to get educated, attend a great prep school and hopefully make it into Princeton and out of the ghetto. On the other side is Jesse, the spoiled rotten, promiscuous white girl with mommy abandonment issues and a real taste for danger. Their relationship begins as a friendly one, both girls competing hard on the school’s lacrosse team and finding isolation in different forms off the field. Driven by their individual needs — Tosha’s need for a way out and Jesse’s desperate need for attention — the girls’ friendship quickly, and almost arbitrarily, erodes away to reveal a collision course that involves dirty dancing, locker room fellatio and extrapolating of commonly cliché cultural divides.
Furthermore, the story is abysmally slow, wobbling drunkenly along, forcing its characters into sometimes irrelevant and often forced situations so as to beat us over the head with their character flaws. Most notable are the flaws in Jesse’s character, which are illustrated through several scenes in which she parties hard and seduces every last boy in her school. At one point she even goes as far as to hump a tree, no joke. The story is also broken up with a few unnecessarily long scenes showcasing Washington D.C.’s Go-Go scene. An hour after the film I am still trying to figure out why we needed two extended scenes of this kind, neither of which did a whole lot to move the story along. And that is where the film’s greatest problem lies, in the fact that it was working with an overwhelmingly subpar script. No great performances or hyper-active music video montage moments could have saved this movie from being anything more than an insufferable bore.
But then again, it’s not for lack of trying. Sonequa Martin, who plays Tosha, is clearly a level or two above the material that she was working with in this film. Her earnest performance leads me to believe that with a project with more substance, she could really shine. Louisa Krouse, who you might remember from the sexyish thriller The Babysitters, gives it her all as well in the role of Jesse. She belts out the tears, turns up the heat in the sexy moments and has one of the most compelling lonely girl faces that I’ve ever seen. But it just isn’t enough to save this film from itself.
In the end this movie is the first huge disappointment of the ’09 festival. I went in expecting a potentially upbeat rivalry movie set against the backdrop of the fiercely competitive world of prep school lacrosse. And from the film’s opening credit sequence, I was led to believe that I would get just that. Unfortunately the film’s story begins unraveling in minute five and never corrects its own destructive course. All I am left with is the hope that these two young actresses will move on and find another project down the road that is actually worthy of their acting abilities.