The initial images of “Step,” an inspirational documentary about about a step-dancing competition, revolve around a different kind of movement: protest. Footage from riots and demonstrations after the verdict in the Freddie Gray case precedes fast-paced edits to a dance practice at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. It’s an opening that hints at something beyond the classic underdog competition doc and while Amanda Lipitz’s film doesn’t quite reinvent the narrative, “Step” tells a story that highlights the intertwining values of hope and education, and never loses sight of the idea that much more lies ahead.
For the “Lethal Ladies of BLYSW” step team, the ultimate goal is to take first place at the annual showcase at Bowie State University, featuring other teams from the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC areas. But as students at a charter school, the prospect of college also looms. “Step” places three of those girls at the heart of these twin pursuits: aspiring Johns Hopkins scholarship candidate Cori, outspoken step team leader Blessin, and Tayla, who’s perpetually under her Mom’s watchful eye .
In these three team members, Lipitz finds an illustrative cross-section of family dynamics, educational prospects and economic stability. In doing so, the film wisely avoids the trap of using the experience of one individual to represent an entire community. So we see one girl’s dinner date with boyfriend right after another girl’s mother tells her daughter, “Boys have cooties.” Some students’ mothers are distant, while another takes so much interest in her daughter’s rehearsals that she crashes it to show off her own moves. All three families have financial concerns, but we see one deal with the consequences of having the electricity turned off.
The Lethal Ladies is the thread that ties these young women together. Sometimes the best moments are folded into breezy pop training montages, the result of compressing an entire senior year into a single film. Where it finds something special is in the uninterrupted glimpses of the Lethal Ladies’ routines that crackle with the energy of channeled frustration and hope.
The film’s relative interest in their competition wanes as the group’s members start to look toward the future. The students aren’t oblivious (or impervious) to the problems that exist outside their rehearsal space. They’re conversant in the societal effects of the Gray verdict, they know how changing economic conditions affect their family day to day, and they debate Martin vs. Malcolm (right before pivoting to some quick Kardashian talk). Each time the film returns to their rehearsal routines, Lipitz show that the all-consuming nature of their dance life becomes refocused toward a different future.
However, it also feels like Lipitz leaves a wealth of experience on the cutting room floor. The faith of Cori’s family and Tayla’s mother’s job as a correctional officer are presented as grace notes, but seem to hold so much connection to what makes each student who they are, that it’s a shame it’s not further explored. And though the Lethal Ladies feature a Black Lives Matter theme in one routine, it feels like there’s more to that movement’s impact on these dancers’ lives than the film leaves time to investigate.
By documenting the collective efforts of getting these girls into college, Lipitz lands on the film’s most enduring message: the necessity for education as a community effort. Watching dance coaches and college counselors become parental figures is the avenue through which “Step” becomes a story about conversations between generations. While Lipitz’s film is glossy at points, she puts Cori, Blessin, and Tayla front and center while reinforcing how their journeys are interwoven with those who surround them. With their future and ours uncertain, it’s reassuring to see so many people invested in the success of young women, and to see that faith rewarded.
“STEP” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight Pictures has acquired the film for distribution.