Toe to Toe has the earmarks of a very popular teen film. But this is a very difficult kind of film to review. A review has to do two things. Task one: It has to give an accurate analysis of the acting and directing and, where exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, the production components, and technical components. Task two: It has to give an accurate depiction of the story and a reliable opinion as to whether it's worth seeing and/or desirable to see and who, if anyone, should see it. The difficulty comes with reviewing a film like this when the first task and the first part of the second task honestly receive all superior evaluations but the second half of the second task receives--at best--dubious evaluations.
Actress Betty White once turned down a role in There's Something About Mary because she had a moral issue with the treatment of the dog in the story--yes--she knew and everyone knew it wasn't a real dog--no matter--particular treatment was depicted. When Betty White was asked if she regretted her choice, she said emphatically, no. When asked why she had turned it down, she said the reason she gave the studio was that after the film was released, there would be a veritable epidemic of dogs going out windows and being otherwise mistreated and, sure enough, she said, within months of the release of There's Something About Mary, newspapers all across the country reported one story after another of dogs going out windows and worse.
Betty White knew--and acted on--what many people know or at least suspect but, for one reason or another, don't act on, and this is that people, especially teens and children but people of all ages, are drawn to what they see on screen and consciously or unconsciously reenact these behaviors and attitudes (Billy Crystalisms, anyone?). Actors' personalities are so strong and they appear to live such realistic lives onscreen that their actions, attitudes, sayings become infectious, as it were, and are then replicated, as Betty White predicted and as did occur.
Having said this, Toe to Toe is a movie that authentically replicates the milieu surrounding today's teens, showing an accurate picture of an emotionally unrestrained situation, some real-life examples of which have several teens on court dockets around the country, to violence to drinking to aspirations for a better life to family alienation to unsafe school environments to over-indulging wealth to expulsion from school to the liberation of excellence in sports. It's all there.
Two girls meet at a prep school on the Lacrosse team. Tosha is African-American from a disadvantaged neighborhood who wins a place at a prep school and then wins a place as a Senior on the Varsity Lacrosse team. Jesse, an over-indulged, neglected, alienated rich white girl also makes the team as a Senior. Their mutual levels of dedication to the game and drive to excel lead them into a friendship of opposites, a friendship that works and betters them both...until. Until Tosha discovers that Jesse is seeing the same handsome Lebanese boy she is seeing.
It used to be that competition in dating wasn't "cheating," it was “may the better person win.” Cheating was reserved for adult relationships that involved marital intimacy...oh...right...today's teenage milieu assumes that upward of 70 percent of teen relations have the equivalent of marital intimacy. As scriptwriter Emily Abt has the character of Jesse demonstrate, teen behavior is a dead ringer for the goings-on of pole dancers (Reflecting a little personal experience?), which, by the way, raises the thorny question of how teens could be exposed to the goings-on of such dancers, but never mind. Back to the point.
When Tosha uncovers and records the uncovered goings-on between Jesse and the handsome Lebanese deejay, the Great American Problem Solver steps forward and anger, yelling and violence take over as the girls "work it out for themselves," as they have been diligently taught to do from infancy. Racial terrorism ensues. Jesse is expelled and she goes from bad to worse. She needs a friend to rescue her, and her one true friend, whom she has previously betrayed--but only because of the contemporary milieu of teenagers' unrestrained behavior and not because of a universal problem of betrayal (I mean, really, during how many eras in history has it been true that young unmarried people had unrestrained relationships with whomsoever, wheresoever and whensoever? Aside from the sixties, not that many.)--steps forward.
Jesse is rescued by her one true friend, who is one whom she had previously betrayed. The girls went toe to toe in violence and now go toe to toe in redemption, achievement and seeing a new vision of life. As a coming-of-age story, Toe to Toe offers an optimistic and promising ending that may inspire some who see it. The directing is handled by Emily Abt, who writes and directs Toe to Toe, with a polish surprising for first-time major film directing (prior work two shorts and two documentaries). The lead actors, Louisa Krause as Jesse and Sonequa Martin as Tosha, put in superior performances that are completely authentic and genuinely convincing.
Now comes the second half of the second task. This is a fine film. But, remembering the Betty White revelation--what many already know or suspect from their own knowledge to be true--I think no one is equipped to see Toe to Toe without being negatively influenced, except adults who have teens that are on the road to trouble or are in trouble. Unfortunately, it will be popular with teens and what I'll call the Betty-White-Reenactment Syndrome is sure to ensue.
Unless this film is seen by teens under strict supervision and discussed strictly as an object lesson, it stands to be added to the list of films that have led to more harm than good; that have made deviant behavior look so darn captivating that, consciously or unconsciously, it becomes part of the social psychological repertoire of behavior. And remember, like Julia Roberts' character said about newspaper articles in Notting Hill, films last forever. This generation of teens and the next and the next will watch this film, probably at home on DVD before they're teens, and the influence it has--whatever that will prove to be--will be perpetuated.
I do not recommend this film except to adults who need information and enlightenment about the current teen milieu surrounding their children.
[Toe to Toe seen at Reviewer's own expense.]