REVIEW: Documentary STEP focuses on more than just dance

STEP. Directed by Amanda Lipitz. Rating: 8 (out of 10)

The documentary film STEP opens following protests in Baltimore over Freddie Gray’s death in 2015; the fact that it’s opening following a death due to KKK violence is bitter timing.

At the heart of STEP is an all-girls step dance team competing towards a multi-state championship and fighting to get out of a neighbourhood that loses many of its young people to gang life and drugs. The real-life drama is a little Hoop Dreams for girls, a little Bring It On, and despite a few missteps of its own, the film is guaranteed to make you cry and cheer along with its subjects.  

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The film focuses on three senior members of The Lethal Ladies step team: Blessin Giraldo is a beauty, the team leader, who teeters between fierce confidence onstage and crippling self-doubt at home. Cori Grainger is a self-described introvert and straight-A student who has dreams of attending Johns Hopkins: but there isn’t enough money to keep the power on, let alone pay for college.

And Tayla Solomon is routinely mortified by her mother, a corrections officer and single mom who has a ferocious need to see her daughter succeed.  

They are also members of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school with the lofty goal of getting every one of their students into, and all the way through, college.

There is a side drama about the fledgling school’s desire to fulfil their mission, led by education heroes like principal Chevonne Hall and college adviser Paula Dofat, working tirelessly to pull girls like Blessin out of the “stuck” place they can’t seem to fight out of.

The film is fortified by other strong women like Gari “Coach G” McIntyre (whose passion is infectious) and the mothers who know that the school is the one chance these girls have of a better life.

Mother-daughter relationships are the beauteous sidebars to STEP’S underdog story.  

The make-it-big story arc is no surprise coming from Lipitz, whose background is in Broadway (Legally Blonde the Musical: the Search for Elle Woods, Tony Award-winning The View From The Bridge).

But the producer-director stumbled on the step-team aspect of the story while making a short film to advertise the new charter school’s mission, and her focus quickly shifted to the determined young ladies (aged 11 when she began filming) expressing themselves through dance and music. Hundreds of rehearsals later, STEP was born.

The film’s only negative is that it is occasionally over-produced to the point that you wonder if you’re watching a documentary or a scripted drama – the narrative seems routed by the film, instead of the other way around.

Nevertheless, STEP is immensely satisfying because of the tenacity of the young women featured, from their struggles to juggle home life, academics and step team, to The Lethal Ladies’ finale in the state competition, a tribute to Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tightly edited at under 90 minutes, the film also finds an ideal resolution, culminating in college response letters and graduation. A hand-clapping, foot-stomping crowd-pleaser all around.

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