Film Review: Step

A feel-good documentary spotlighting three charismatic members of the step-dance team at a special Baltimore high school for underserved girls, 'Step' is emotionally engaging but may disappoint those hoping to see a lot of exciting stepping.
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A formulaic, feminist-tinged, feel-good documentary, Step points a tightly focused lens on three African-American teenage girls as they complete their senior year of high school at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school founded in 2009 with the goal that all of its graduates, who come largely from underserved communities, will attend college. All three girls—drop-dead gorgeous Blessin, brainy Cori and lovably personable Tayla—are members of the school’s step-dance team. With its grueling schedule of practices and regional competitions, and its new tough-love coach, the step team is used to link the telling of the girls’ affecting yet predictably structured individual stories, which all demonstrate the familiar theme of education as “savior” for poverty-stricken youngsters.

Amanda Lipitz directs the film in a style more suitable to drama than documentary, consistently tugging at our heartstrings while foregoing deep investigation into the larger social and political issues surrounding the girls’ school experiences. Though the documentary centralizes the role of the step team, the main task at hand is getting the girls into college and no clear connections emerge between participation in stepping and the girls’ academic achievements. Rather, the two more successful girls—Cori and Tayla—are shown to have extremely supportive parents and intellectual interests, while Blessin harbors less academic, creative fashion talents and is saddled with a seriously troubled mother.

The film is likely to disappoint step fans expecting exciting footage of the competitive precision dance form, as well as those hoping to learn more about its practice. Pioneered on college campuses by African-American fraternities in the 1920s, stepping involves the synchronized performance of complex rhythms produced by foot stomps, chanting and body percussion. Unlike in Stomp the Yard (the movie to see for spectacular step-dance routines), the stepping here is rudimentary, given minimal screen time, and filmed with less regard for the art form. One competition is presented as a montage of quick shots from different teams’ performances, all set to a pop-song soundtrack that supports the film’s dramatic narrative while overriding the authentic percussive sounds integral to the stepping.

Nonetheless, the documentary is entrancing—because, as screen personas, its three main characters couldn’t be more appealing, sympathetic and entertaining. Audiences will adore them and want them to succeed, which they do, thanks to a network of empowering women. The film’s subtle feminism lies in the dearth of men among the cast of influential figures in the three girls’ lives. The extraordinary support the girls receive all comes from women—their school principal, counselor, coach and female family members. When Tayla’s grades begin to drop, possibly because of time she’s spending with a new boyfriend, her single mom—a wonderfully exuberant (much to her daughter’s embarrassment) step-team “stage mother”—tells Tayla, “Boys have cooties” and warns her to “stay away” from them.

While it doesn’t shy away from showing the oppressive poverty these remarkably resilient girls face at home, the film is leavened throughout with bittersweet humor. In one painfully tickling scene, as punishment for not doing well in their recent competition, the coach demands the girls line up against the gym wall and hold an excruciating squat position, as they screech in protest. We feel their pain, yet their pleas for mercy are hysterically funny.

The girls are delightful, their school is inspiring and heartwarming outcomes abound. It all makes for a moving documentary, not about step dancing, but about stepping up.

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