Olympic Movie Festival: Going ‘Toe to Toe’

In Chloe’s last post on sports movies for women, she considered Bend It Like Beckham.

By Chloe Angyal

Toe to Toe isn’t really about sports. Yes, it’s about lacrosse players, and there are some great training montages, but really, this movie is not about sport. It’s about the straight and narrow path (which includes sports), and what happens when young women deviate from it.

Jesse (Louise Krausa) and Tosha (Sonequa Martin-Green) are seniors at a prep school in the DC suburbs. Jesse, who is white, lives in a luxurious house in the leafy green ‘burbs, and she lives largely unsupervised because her single mother is always traveling abroad for work. They have a housekeeper, Fatima, with whom Jesse is closer than with her own other. Jesse drinks a lot, smokes weed, and screws around. Early in the movie we learn that she’s been thrown out of multiple schools in the last few years.

Tosha lives in Anacostia, also with her single mom, as well as her grandma, kid brother, and her older brother and his baby daughter. Tosha’s mother isn’t terribly supportive of her academic ambitions, but her grandmother (Leslie Uggams) is determined that Tosha realize her dream of getting into Princeton. Tosha studies hard and is friends with other black girls at school, none of whom have grown up in the disadvantaged circumstances in which she lives. In her neighbourhood, Tosha is teased for playing “retarded white people games.”

Tosha and Jessie would presumably never cross paths at school were it not for the abovementioned game, lacrosse. They’re the only two seniors to make the team, and at the start of the movie, they’re both aiming to make the all-star team. They become kinda-friends, training together and bonding over their status as outsiders. Jesse is an outsider because she’s the school slut and Tosha doesn’t feel she fits in because she seems to be the school’s only poor black girl. But they’re both rather good at lacrosse, it seems, even if they have different styles of playing. In a scene early in the movie, Jesse watches Tosha at tryouts, her two tight black braids tucked up into an unmoving low bun, as she tries to drive through the players standing between her and the goal. There are blonde and light brown ponytails swinging all around her, and she stands out as she tries to muscle on through. Jesse, up next, tells her “watch me,” and runs onto the field, her own blonde ponytail flying around her head as she dodges and weaves and finds a path to the goal.

As the movie goes on, lacrosse becomes a symbol of the straight and narrow path. Tosha manages to stay on it, and on the team. Jesse does not. She’s late for games (because she’s busy performing oral sex in the locker room, on a boy who claims to have a crush on Tosha), and after being disciplined for repeatedly showing up late to practice, she just walks away. Off the team, and off the straight and narrow.

Emily Abt, the writer-producer-director, did an amazing job with two very fine but inexperienced young actresses, and nothing about Krause’s or Martin-Green’s performances feels forced or overdone. There’s so much going on in this movie that I haven’t mentioned here – around race, and class, and religion, and motherhood – that it’s almost a wonder that Abt is able to keep it all contained and under control.

As I said, at its core this movie is about sex, and about other ways that teenage girls supposedly misbehave when they aren’t properly loved and don’t properly love themselves. But it’s also about how sports can keep them on track, giving them something to work toward and achieve, and making them part of a team. In Tosha’s case, sports are partly her ticket out of Anacostia and into Princeton. In Jesse’s case, sports are just one more thing that gets thrown by the wayside as she veers dramatically off course. It’s hard to miss the message that studying. It’s hard to miss the message that for teenage girls, studying and team sports will lead to success, while experimenting with sex and substances will only make you unhappier than you already are.