Docu helmer tries hand at narrative with 'Toe'

The complexities of female friendships serve as the basis for documentary helmer Emily Abt’s first narrative feature, Sundance competition pic “Toe to Toe.”

Abt, who also penned the script, captures a biracial friendship between two high school seniors in a way that transcends the usual coming-of-age teen dramas. They’re an unlikely pair — Tosha is a black girl from a low-income neighborhood, while Jesse is a blonde white girl who comes from money. The two meet on a lacrosse field and become pals despite their divergent social status. Everything changes when a boy sparks tensions that divide the young women on many levels.

“What I love about Jesse and Tosha is that they have this relationship that’s complicated and deals with messy, subtle forms of racial tension that we don’t necessarily see explored” in films, Abt says.

Her script won faculty honors at Columbia U. and was featured as a No Borders project at the IFP in 2007.

Making movies was one of many options Abt had on the table after graduating NYU with a political science degree. She briefly moved into social work before debating a future as a lawyer. But it was her passion for film, and the human condition, that made her choose filmmaking. “I decided I didn’t need to abandon my commitment to public service in order to be a filmmaker,” she says.

Abt’s first effort was “Take It From Me,” a documentary on welfare reform and the women she met as a caseworker in New York City. It aired on PBS’ “P.O.V.” in 2001, and received the Henry Hampton Media Award. Last year, she lensed a second doc, “All of Us,” about a young doctor’s fight against HIV.

“She takes a lot of emotional risks,” says editor Geeta Gandbhir, who worked on both of Abt’s docs and served as consultant on her latest pic. “She won’t settle for the status quo and isn’t happy with a one-sided story.”

With “Toe to Toe,” Abt draws on her reality-based filmmaking background but also shows she’s not shy to elevate dramatic tension when the time is right.

“I wanted to create a story where we see two characters being very authentic with each other, not always saying the polite or PC thing,” Abt says. “There is a beauty in that realness, and that ultimately takes them to a place where they’re willing to sacrifice a lot for each other.”

Abt is working on a script about women in politics.

Age: 33

Home base: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Inspired by: Films including “Do the Right Thing” and “Streetwise,” and contemporary social photographers Nan Goldin and Mary Ellen Mark

Rep: Attorney: Emerson Burns at Emerson E. Burns Law in New York

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