Video Review: Step

STEP  (2017)
Directed by Amanda Liptiz
Fox Searchlight, PG, 83 minutes.

Faithful readers know that a criterion I use to evaluate movies is the degree to which they take us inside worlds we're unlikely to enter ourselves. Step certainly does that for me. It's about an all-female charter school, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The BLSYM is mostly African American and the film's subject is about a phenomenon about which I had never heard. We drop in on the seniors of BLSYM in 2015, a tough time to be black and in Baltimore, as that's the year Freddie Gray was murdered by city cops.  School principal Cheronne Hall and head of guidance Paula Dofat have a daunting and audacious goal: keep their students focused, graduate every one of them, and attain a 100% college acceptance rate.

For many of these young women, step is a release from inner-city troubles, personal trauma, the classroom grind, and poverty. Where I live, step dancing evokes Riverdance—Irish music, stiff upper bodies, and flying leg kicks. In Baltimore, think something akin to slices of a Beyoncé video, the step being an increment—those individual pieces stitched together into a choreographed set. Step teams compete, confer street cred, and instill a sense of personal achievement.    

Director Amanda Liptiz's documentary highlights two connected struggles, one academic and the other the fate of the BLSYW step team. She goes broad rather than deep, but gives just enough to keep viewers engaged. We witness both battles in vignette, but step is the star. There's a new coach, Gari McIntyre, who hopes to reverse past history—the BLSYM Lethal Ladies team hasn't done well in recent years—and she dares dream she can whip them into shape to get to the championship round in Bowie, Maryland.

Has anyone been to Bowie? It's an okay place, but Paris it isn't, and aspiring to get to Bowie is its own statement of small dreams. Students cycle in and out of the documentary, but mainly Liptiz focuses on three—who metaphorically represent the top, middle, and low end of the student body. Cori Grainger is the outlier at the crest. She's brilliant, studious, and ambitious Her heart is set on being accepted at Johns Hopkins, but she knows she has to dazzle as she's of six kids and needs a full scholarship to go anywhere, let alone Hopkins. Cori certainly assumes her desired role; call hers a nerd chic look. As she puts it, she got to the top, liked the view, and decided to stay there.

Tayla Solomon is akin to the average student at BLSYM. She does fine in school, but she's not Hopkins material. She is, however, kept in line by her no-nonsense single mom, Maisha, a correctional officer unafraid to wield her discipline at home. And then we have Blessin Giraldo, the founder and captain of the Lethal Ladies. She's bright enough, but she also spends more time on her hair and makeup than schoolwork; she's truant a lot, sometimes angry, and carrying a sub 2.0 grade-point average. Vote her the least likely student to get to college.

Much of what we see in this film defies expectations. Most of the families are poor, but they do not live in squalor. In some ways, their invisible poverty is tougher; the girls look good and their homes are tidy, but there's often no food in the fridge. That's actually one of the burdens Blessin carries; she occasionally goes without food so a younger sibling can eat. She says she doesn’t mind, but we know better. If you think making it to Bowie is a modest goal, most students of Tayla's ilk aren't waiting to hear from Smith or the Ivies; they're really hoping they can make it into schools like Alabama A & M, Potomac State, or Allegany—that is, the ones you won't find battling for prestige in the U.S. News and World Reports college rankings. Each student, though, knows that college—any college—offers hope for a better life.

I won't reveal how any of this—college or step competition—plays out. Nor will I tell you that this is the most brilliant film you'll see. Liptiz has made a film that moves briskly, but has lacunae we'd like to see filled. What's the deal, for instance, with Cori's stepfather—  a bearish white guy with a bushy red beard we encounter in seas of black and brown faces? We don’t learn much about the school, either. How are students and faculty chosen? How does it fit within the Baltimore educational system? Mainly we want to know how these young women fare down the road, the true test of whether the heroic efforts of their teachers and step coach were worth the effort.

Step has been called the Hoop Dreams of the hip-hop generation. There are also parallels to Fame. It’s not on par with either film, but it does take us inside a world hitherto veiled. I hope that Liptiz follows the example of Michael Apted (Seven Up) and does a sequel that updates her charges. Or maybe I don’t. It would break my heart if any of these young women fail.

Rob Weir

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