Without question, Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s brilliant feature film directorial debut is deeply moving and inspirational, but unlike most documentaries it also makes for very entertaining viewing. “Step” focuses on the lives of some key members of an inner-city, all-girl Baltimore charter school’s rhythmic step troupe during their senior year. With skillful editing and storytelling, Lipitz educates us about the world of step training, also showing how the discipline of that physical experience helped mold these particular young women, improve their academic performance and lead to 100 percent of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women being accepted to colleges around the nation.
In particular we are witness to the lives of Blessin Giraldo, Tayla Solomon and Cori Grainger. Giraldo is the step team captain and troupe co-founder, but a girl who faces challenges both in her home environment (with a mother suffering from depression, unwilling to comprehend success) and in the classroom, where she is not living up to her obvious academic potential. But for the unyielding support and belief system pushed by the school’s college guidance counselor, Paula Dofat, Giraldo might never have achieved her goal of making it to college.
Cori Grainger, on the other hand, is a brilliant student whose determination and innate charm have a viewer silently cheering her on as she strives for acceptance at Johns Hopkins University in her native Baltimore — the college she always dreamed of attending. Along with Tayla Solomon’s delightful personality and athletic skill, one cannot help but be swept up by the enthusiasm of her mother, Maisha, a correctional officer, who serves as a kind of “den mother” to the step team and key supporter of the team’s “Coach G,” Gari McIntyre.
McIntyre is a no-nonsense, tough-love mentor to the girls. She does not accept excuses and always has her eye on what is important in her team’s lives.
While “Step” is set in Baltimore shortly after Freddie Gray died while in police custody, the film does not dwell on many of the underlying political and social unrest issues that continue to plague the city, as well as other large urban metropolises. Yet, simply by observing the world in which these young women and their families live, one easily understands the obstacles they face and the difficulties inherent in overcoming them.
As they strive to win the “big one” — the major step competition in Bowie, Maryland — you come to feel deep affection for these students. That emotional impact of this important documentary will add to the understanding of the divisions we all face in this diverse nation, especially at this time of great division.
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a documentary directed by Amanda Lipitz. Rated PG (for thematic elements and some language). Running time: 83 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.