The world has long been up to its eyes in feel-good movies about teenagers. They charm us, and then they struggle. A tough-talking mentor or frustrated friend sweeps in and helps set them straight. These scrappy youngsters then make amends, usually in a montage. They triumph! A pop song plays. Occasionally, there’s a sequel.
All of these things happen during Step, and yet the experience of watching it never comes close to approaching tedium. That’s largely because these scrappy youngsters are real young women, the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Amanda Lipitz, who has known them since they were 11 years old. Step may be a touch too glossy, and unusually, a bit too short, but its power is undeniable. Through Lipitz, we peer into the lives of these young black women. They’re remarkable. They’re vital and complex, joyful and heartbreaking. They’re surrounded by a circle of women – teachers, mothers, coaches – who challenge and nurture and protect them. They’re beautiful, and so is their story.
As the film opens, the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women – a charter school founded by Lipitz’s mother, founded with the goal of a 100% college acceptance rate for its students – prepares to enter its first year. Their city still reels from the death of Freddie Gray, one of far too many black Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement. There’s turmoil in the streets and turmoil at home, but a team of young women comes together after school to stomp, clap, and express themselves.
Step focuses on three of these students. Blessin founded the school’s step team in the sixth grade, the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW (or LLOB), and she serves as its captain. She lights up when performing, but struggles in school and at home. Cori, the class’s likely valedictorian, sheds both her introverted tendencies and her worries about money and family when she steps. The unflappable Tayla proves to be both bubbly and wry, alternately delighted by her extroverted mother and deeply and utterly mortified, in that gloriously teenaged way, by all parental antics and attention. As the year progresses, they face familiar challenges. Report cards come in, boyfriends are lovely and awful, friendships fray.
But our world has handed each of these young women a fat handful of obstacles that many others will never face. The circumstances of their lives make even the most mundane high school troubles all the more daunting. “40, 50, 60 years later, we still have to protest for our rights,” Gari ‘Coach G’ McIntyre tells her students as they stand at a memorial to Gray. “As African-American women, you guys – not you guys, we – we are considered the bottom of the barrel.”
Lipitz lays out these cold facts in plain, assured form. Cinematographer Casey Regan starkly frames the candles left burning when the power goes out, the tears that leave streaks in a beautifully made-up face, the tension in the jaw of a teacher terrified of losing a student. These moments aren’t mined for pathos, but are instead captured unblinkingly, and this spare approach adds to the film’s power.
Unfortunately, that same spare approach also leaves the film feeling thin at times. As the narrative bounces around, just as the young women do, from class to practice to home and back again, some of its most compelling threads go unfollowed. Brief flashes of insight into the inner lives of Blessin, Cori, and Tayla only serve to underline how often Lipitz merely scratches the surface. While it may seem shallow on its face, another shortcoming leaves an undeniable hole in the film: precious few minutes are actually spent on the creation, rehearsal, or performance of the team’s routines. “Step is life,” Blessin tells her classmates. Yet outside the real and visceral thrill of briefly watching these young women command attention on the stage, we learn very little about their creation of and passion for their art. There’s just not that much step to be found in Step, and that’s a shame.
At 83 minutes, Step could hardly be accused of overstaying its welcome, but its issues might not fully be solved by additional length. This is a frequently moving film; the efforts of counselor Paula Doufat alone would be worthy of their own high-profile film adaptation. Still, the film sometimes falls short of the authenticity that radiates from the women at its center. It’s all a little tidy, a little glossy, a little lacking in the loose ends that life can’t help but provide. There’s an emotive, slightly manipulative score. An Oscar-ready ballad, performed by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, basically demands your tears as a tithe (even if it’s one that’s likely to be paid, as she can sing). Yes, it’s inspiring, but it’s also So Inspirational. Capital S and I included. Maybe with a little ™ at the end.
One might wish for a more complex take on this particular year in the life of these young women, but the complexities present in the girls more than make up for any conveniently rosy storytelling that the film puts forth. The best documentaries – the best films – present moments that have the potential to live forever. All filmgoing experiences are personal, but Step contains such a moment for this writer. Upon reading a college acceptance and scholarship letter, one of the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW seems stunned, and almost sad. When her overjoyed mother asks why she’s surprised at the outcome, she replies that the school “looks for a certain type of people. I didn’t know I was one of them.” Then her melancholy breaks, her mother’s joy pride and joy infecting her, and she smiles so broadly it must hurt. She smiles, and it’s clear that something tremendous has happened.
For 83 minutes, Step allows you to live alongside these girls. The credits roll, but their lives continue. It’s enough to make you wish for a sequel.