In the wounded wake of the protests that ripped through Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women began its senior year, which is chronicled with intense participation in STEP. Established in 2009, the public charter school's mission is to send every one of its low-income students to college, but the pressures of home, community and fear of failure make for a nail-biting applications process. The empowering outlet for all that anxiety in Amanda Lipitz's celebratory documentary is a step dance team seeking redemption in a state face-off.
If that sounds like The Fits meets Bring It On, you're not far off, and it seems impossible that someone won't snap up the rights to this uplifting success story and refashion it as a narrative teen pic. But that doesn't mean this thoroughly enjoyable nonfiction account shouldn't find a receptive audience eager to share the tears and triumphs of its spirited protagonists and their mentors.
Emotionally involving material is the key element to a good human-interest documentary, and Lipitz, a Baltimore native with a background in Broadway producing, has tapped into a great story here of adversity, struggle and elevating achievement.
She has real-life characters worth rooting for in a class of African-American girls edging into womanhood in a city gripped by unrest and ugly reminders of racial inequality. Many of them will be the first in their families to attend college. Then there's the dynamic athletic element of the step routines, providing an avenue for passionate self-expression and a vibrant musical pulse. Further expanding the dramatic scope is the work of a groundbreaking school doing its part to defy expectations and escape the grim statistics of a city that loses far too many of its youth to drugs, crime and gun violence.
The film focuses primarily on three senior members of the step team, known as the "Lethal Ladies of BLSYW." At the forefront is the group's founder and captain, Blessin Giraldo, a stunning beauty and a natural-born star eager to break away from her troubled home life by attending college in a different city. New York is her first choice, given its association with dance and choreography. But Blessin's seeming poise and confidence are revealed to be somewhat deceptive, which may stand in the way of the improved grades she needs to secure her future.
Straight-A student Cori Grainger, by contrast, is a shy introvert who finds that step brings her out of her shell. One of a family of seven children, she dreams of going to Johns Hopkins University but will require a full scholarship. Tayla Solomon is the only child of a single mother who works as a corrections officer and is tenacious in her will to see her daughter succeed.
Warm, funny, unselfconscious and unfailingly real in their insecurities as well as their apprehensions about the adult world they're preparing to navigate, these young women paradoxically seem even more vulnerable having spent almost seven years in an uncommonly nurturing environment. Blessin, in particular, shows her fragility, torn between her unstoppable self and the other side of her that feels stuck. But all the girls have had to overcome significant difficulties, and each seems fortified by her experience of teamwork and sisterhood. "You mess with my sisters and you mess with me," goes one of their step-routine chants.
The film's depiction of different types of mother-daughter relationships is filled with lovely moments, many of them colored by sadness. And the investment of the school staff in their students' success provides another heartening element — among them the principal, Chevonne Hall; tough step mistress, Gari "Coach G" McIntyre; and most of all, college advisor Paula Dofat, whose big-sisterly concern for Blessin is extremely touching.
Edited by Penelope Falk into a briskly paced 83 minutes, STEP builds to a moving conclusion as responses to college applications trickle in and graduation approaches. In between, there's the state step competition, for which the Lethal Ladies prepare a piece that honors the memory of Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement, while their proud mothers look on with tears in their eyes. By that time, Lipitz has fostered a connection to all the young women on the stage, of all shapes and sizes, even those in the back whose names we barely know. Dressed in their Cleopatra costumes, these girls are queens.
Production companies: Stick Figure Productions, in association with Impact Partners, Vulcan Productions
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Producers: Steven Cantor, Amanda Lipitz
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Jeny Raskin, Scott Rudin, Paul G. Allen, Carole Tomko, Michael Flaherty, Valerie McGowan, Barbara Dobkin, Regina K. Scully, Debra McLeod and Jay Sears, Ann & Andrew Tisch
Director of photography: Casey Regan
Music: Laura Karpman, Raphael Saadiq
Editor: Penelope Falk
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: WME Global