While one documentary currently in theaters (An Inconvenient Sequel) may make you feel terrible about the direction in which the world is headed (although it certainly has its moments of hope), director-producer Amanda Lipitz’s Step seems custom built to make you stand up and cheer, both for the Baltimore step team at the center of the film and for the individual high school-age girls who make up the team and their sometimes surprising achievements during their time on the team. For those who don’t know, stepping is a form of dance, heavy on the percussive as both hands and feet combine to turn the body into its own musical instrument. Quite often, spoken word is also incorporated, and the practice is so popular, there are competitions in high school across the country.
In the case of one particular all-girl, all-African American charter school in a part of Baltimore that has seen its fair share of trouble, teachers, administrators, coaches and counselors work with students and their parents to use step as a means of confidence building, teaching what it is to work with others to achieve perfection, and strengthen leadership skills. It just so happens that at the newly formed Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, the goal is 100 percent college acceptance by every member of the graduating class; and the class that Lipitz (who got her start as a Broadway producer, which she still does) profiles members of is the first graduating class, so the pressure from an academic standpoint is as intense as the team’s goal to win the state stepping finals.
Just as the step team’s routine is coming together, the school and community in which it stands is forced to deal with emotional trauma of the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, and they decide to embrace the theme of Black Lives Matter into the program, bringing the practice back to its roots as a tool for protest. The film focuses on three girls in very different situations in terms of their academic status at school and their home lives and level of support they get from parents or other guardian figures in their lives. Perhaps better than any film I’ve seen before about the education process, Step shows the direct connection between parental involvement and grades and college acceptance, and for at least one of these girls, it’s an equation that might not work in her favor.
We see the girls go step by step through the process of applying to colleges and for financial aid should they be accepted, and these moments are given as much weight as the step rehearsal experience. There’s such a variety of types of young women on the team, and it’s uplifting to see them all get along, even when problems and disagreements come to a head. The one student whose journey stuck with me is that of Blessin Giraldo, who balances a mentally unstable home life, a boyfriend, and grades that run the risk of keeping her off the team and, more importantly, not getting into college. But the team and the school’s staff rally around her in hopes of pulling off a handmade miracle.
The trials and tribulations that nearly every person in this movie go through are so extraordinary at times that, if this had been a fiction film, one might criticize it for seeming too unrealistic. Yet, here it is—life in all its unpredictable glory. But Lipitz followed these girls for other projects since they were much younger, so her investment in and access to the toughest parts of their lives only makes us care about them more. And when we do get the step finals, there’s really no telling how much clapping, cheering and praying you’ll do as they perform a precision routine and wait for the results from the judges.
The reason Step works so well is that you can actually see life paths shifting before you eyes. They put in the work on and off the team, and the results happen. If one girl finds herself sliding back, she doesn’t wallow in self-pity. This is a high school sports movie that puts as much emphasis on academic achievement as it does on what happens on stage, and that’s refreshing after watching such films year after year where sports dominate the conversation. This is also a film about women giving other women a boost in their time of need. These are your real-life cinematic wonder women.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.