STEP – Review
The inspirational documentary STEP follows a girls’ step dance team at a Baltimore charter high school, both in their quest to win a big step dance competition and to get into college.
The story takes place in 2015, the shadow of the unrest and protests that gripped Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, and the documentary has echoes of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter as well. All of the girls in this documentary are African-American and low-income, but they are lucky in one way: their high school, which has a staff devoted to their success, Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 as a small girls-only high school with the mission to get every one of its low-income students into college.
Director Amanda Lipitz’s film centers on the high school’s step team, a form of percussive dance historically linked to African-American sororities and fraternities. The film spotlights three girls in particular, as they prepare for a step competition, complete their senior year, and apply for college.
That premise may sound like BRING IT ON but the Lipitz’s true story is more heart-tugging and uplifting than the familiar narrative suggests. STEP debuted at Sundance earlier this year, to positive reviews and warm audience response. Lipitz, a Baltimore native, offers a surprisingly enjoyable story of struggle, obstacles, determination and ambition sure to pull in an audience.
The documentary singles out three girls, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon, but also puts a spotlight on two educators, the coach of the step team, Gari McIntyre, and their college adviser, Paula Dofat.
The girls are all attractive and personable, so it is easy to root for their success, both in winning the step competition and getting into the college of their choice. The film gives us time with each girl’s family, with their coach and college adviser, and often lets the girls speak for themselves. But what we see little of are other pressures the girls face – in the classroom, among peers, or in their neighborhoods.
At first, it seems success is assured for all three but as the documentary unfolds, cracks emerge in that facade as the girls struggle with family and relationship issues, and one girl in particular seems really at risk. The girls talk a good game but conversations with the adults indicate not all is as smooth as the girls’ brave, think-positive talk would suggest.
Blessin is the co-founder of the step team, a beautiful, charismatic young woman with poise and positive attitude. She looks to have all the elements for success but she has a troubled family situation, with an unreliable mother who has her own issues with violence. Blessin has big dreams about college but more trouble focusing on the more immediate goal of keeping up with school work.
The documentary spends a bit more time on Blessin’s story but also spotlights time to the other two. Cori is proud of her perfect grades and has her heart set on attending Johns Hopkins. But with no money, winning a full-ride scholarship is her only chance. Tayla seems the shy one, working hard in school and on the team, but embarrassed by her mother’s big outgoing personality and nonstop cheering for her only child. As a guard at prison, Tayla’s mother knows how important her daughter’s success is but sometimes comes on too strong.
Audiences cannot help but pull for these girls and admire their efforts but what more impressive is the school support. Both the coach and the college adviser give these girls constant help and direction, both cheering them on and pulling them aside when needed. They are there to pick the girls up when they fall, or to correct their course when they waver. It is ultimately up to the girls, but these two educators never quit, refusing to give up on the girls even in the face of an unreliable parent. These two are the kind of teachers one would wish for all students, but which we too rarely find.
As the dates of both the step competition and graduation approach, the documentary focuses more on the quest to get into college – and the challenge of paying for it – than on the dance routines. By the film’s end, Lipitz brings the two threads together, the goals of winning the step contest and getting into college, in an uplifting ending.
The girls’ journey touches our hearts but the real inspirational story is that of these two dedicated educators, who are the true heroes of STEP.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars