It’s frustrating that Step doesn’t bother to explain what step dance is, but if you’re willing to overlook this there is real insight within.
The main subjects, high school seniors applying to college who are also step team members, commit fearlessly to allowing their lives and emotions to be documented and analysed. This is especially true of the vivacious Blessin Giraldo, who Step clumsily yet wisely thrusts into a belated spotlight as primary subject. Lipitz makes shrewd use of her access, illuminating the girls’ family lives but never overstepping bounds of privacy, tact and respect.
The motivation for focussing specifically on the step team is undercommunicated – you have to wonder if it was at least in part an easy route to cinematic and visual vibrancy. Throughout thematic connections are thinly drawn. It’s not that race riots, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women aren’t connected, but Lipitz fails to make a compelling case as to how. Without these interrelations explicitly mapped out, the twin trajectories of college applications and step competitions – predictably mounting to an all-important regional final – can be idiosyncratic bedfellows.
What Lipitz does convey powerfully is how deeply the girls’ coach and guidance counsellor care for them, and how hard they work to help them fulfil their ambitions. However, within the film’s high school movie-aping structure these figures do approach the inspirational teacher trope. Together with an archetypal final-act valedictorian speech and a contrived visit to the Freddy Gray memorial, Step has more than a tincture of cliché.
As tribute to everyday people working hard and staying selfless in tough situations, Step shines. Its investigative remit, however, is both too broad and too shallow. It can be affecting, yet it lacks the argumentative thrust of the most vital documentaries of our time.
CAST: Paula Dofat, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon
DIRECTOR: Amanda Lipitz
SYNOPSIS: Step documents the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner-city Baltimore. As each one tries to become the first in their families to attend college, the girls strive to make their dancing a success against the backdrop of social unrest in the troubled city.