Playing a bit like Hoop Dreams meets The Fits with more than a touch of any one of the much-maligned spate of early-aughts teen dance dramas, Step is an inspirational documentary that wears its heart on its sleeve. While its brief sub-90-minute running time doesn’t leave much room for depth or context, it’s a film whose message is both timely and necessary. The film follows the step dance team of an inner-city Baltimore school for at-risk girls as they struggle to make their mark in competition, and the results are predictably uplifting if occasionally superficial. But what Step lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in emotional resonance.
As far as heart-string-tugging goes, first-time documentarian Amanda Lipitz’s film is particularly blatant in its aims. Fortunately, Step’s emotional exploitation is (mostly) justified by the social significance of its story, and its ambitions are achieved just as successfully as those of its young subjects. Focusing on three central members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s Lethal Ladies of BLYSW step troupe, Lipitz’s film provides a fascinating insight into the social realities of young black women trying to find their way in a society that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to people of their gender, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds.
While the team as a whole is followed during the preparations for a major regional step competition, three members take center stage: there’s class valedictorian Cori, with aspirations to a Johns Hopkins education but no way to pay for it; Tayla, whose corrections officer mom seems more engaged in step practice than her daughter; and team founder Blessin, whose slipping grades and abysmal attendance record threaten her very participation in the team she created. This trio represents a broad cross section of the life experiences common to the school as a whole, and while the details may differ from case to case, the commonality of their struggles is presented in believably realistic detail by Lipitz.
Watching the girls grapple with the standard teen problems of navigating college applications, family dysfunction and budding relationships takes on added dimensionality amid the social unrest of post-Freddie-Gray Baltimore. It’s tough to avoid the feeling that these girls have the deck thoroughly stacked against them, even as Lipitz populates their world with the optimistic influences of surrogate parental figures such as dogged college admissions counselor Paula Dofat and the tough-but-fair Gari “Coach G” McIntyre. The girls’ success may be far from a foregone conclusion, but at least they’re not fighting for it on their own.
If I have one central complaint with Step, it’s that it reasons from conclusions rather than toward them. Lipitz has an abundantly clear agenda, and every step of the film seems calculated to serve a purpose. There’s no sense of documentary objectivity, and it seems that details are consistently obscured to ensure the film’s pervasive positivity remains beyond reproach. However, in the wake of the disastrously stupid expression of unchecked racism that took place in Charlottesville over the weekend, I for one am more than happy to accept the unquestioned positivity of a film like Step as it stands. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.