If J.K.Rowling and the “Harry Potter” books made it cool to read, Amanda Lipitz’s first film may make going to see documentaries fashionable.
“Step,” is the rousing feel-good story of a high school girls’ step team, who use percussive stomping movements and sharp hand movements to express themselves. (As team co-founder Blessin Giraldo puts it: “We make music with our bodies! That’s some slick stuff!”) The film won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Against the backdrop of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, “Step” takes place at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which opened in 2009 with a class of 6th grade girls. The class of 2016 is the first to graduate, and the school’s leaders make it clear from the opening credits that each of them is expected to graduate and go on to college.
The school’s step team, Lethal Ladies of BLSYW (LLOB) is empowering and rewarding, but there is no doubt that it is extra-curricular in an environment where curriculum comes first.
“Step” focuses on three charismatic members of the team. Giraldo is clearly a star in the making and the camera loves her. She sports about 20 hairstyles in an 84-minute film, and her hair is outdone only by her personality. In spite of her gregariousness, she struggles with school and with her poverty-stricken home life, and a mom who suffers from depression.
Cori Grainger hopes to be class valedictorian and to head to Johns Hopkins afterward. She is serious and introverted—in short, “I am everything step isn’t.” Tayla Solomon cringes when her mother, a corrections officer, comes to step practice every day after work and does the routines. But she clearly adores her mom, who serves as the team parent.
An atmosphere of hope pervades the film as the cinematography effectively contrasts the bleak outside world with the bright, lively school and loving homes.
Lipitz has made a film appropriate for all ages. There is no cursing or sex and the only violence is the pounding the poor gymnasium floors take when these hard-working girls do their thing.
The final competition scenes are pulse-pounding from the minute the team walks in with their game faces on accompanied by a terrific combination of popular hip hop and rap songs and original music by composer Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq. The high energy of the competition is matched by the poignant intensity of the graduation.
So, who should see this documentary? Fans of dance. Girls. Teachers. Parents. Kids. In short, anyone who wants to be inspired and touched.
It is doubly gratifying that “Step” is part of a summer in which films directed by women, such as “Detroit” and “Wonder Woman,” have rocked the box office and won critical acclaim.
The LLOB would be proud.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Blessin Giraldo, Tayla Solomon, Cori Grainger and Paula Dofat in documentary about the senior year of a girls' step dance team in an inner-city Baltimore high school. 84 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.