Rated PG for thematic elements and some language
Directed by Amanda Lipitz
Starring Paula Dofat, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon and more
Grade: Three stars
It’s both joyous and terrifying to be young.
We adults often forget that, which is one of many reasons why movies like “Step” are so important. A documentary about the senior year of a girls’ high school step dance team in Baltimore, the movie powerfully captures that moment just before graduation where you feel like the entire rest of your life is hanging on what you can pull off in the next few months. When you add the social and economic difficulties these girls face, every success they achieve is powerfully inspiring.
The documentary follows the step dance team at a private inner-city girls school designed to make sure all their students go to college. The focus is on three girls during their senior year: Blessin, who is a talented dancer but struggles in both school and at home; Cori, who excels in school but may be kept from her dreams by her family’s financial troubles; and Tayla, who loves her mother but sometimes bristles at her style of parenting.
In many ways, the movie feels like a real-life version of all of those movies where a plucky inner city group of teens fights for success against impossible odds. There are two quests for success – the step dance competition, and their desire to get into college. The step dance is probably the most plot-friendly, since this is the girls’ last year and the team has attended this competition several times and never won.
It’s the quest for college, however, that’s the real focus. Tayla just wants to get away, Cori longs for Johns Hopkins, and Blessin struggles to get her grades to the point that a school will accept her. I would have loved to hear more from Tayla, but at the same time a deeper focus could have drawn so many fascinating dichotomies between Cori and Blessin’s situations.
Though “Step” is a gentle documentary overall, it doesn’t shy away from the difficult truths in the girls’ lives. The team visits the memorial of Freddie Gray, who was shot by Baltimore police, and has Tayla’s mother speak a little about being inspired to be a correctional officer by the police who were in her neighborhood as a child. It also touches on depression, particularly in the case of Blessin’s mother and quite possibly Blessin herself. Poverty is a shadow that hangs over many of the characters’ heads.
All of this, however, stays relatively light. It’s a story of hope, and more of a opportunity for the characters to tell their stories than the director to tell hers. A tighter focus might have allowed the opportunity for more depth, letting the documentary really dig into concepts and plot suggestions that were only lightly touched on.
In the end, the movie’s hope proved the most infectious thing about it. I wanted more for these girls, and more importantly I wanted them to want more for themselves.