At first glance, “Step” seems to be a typical documentary. There have been so many films (both fictional and real-life) about a team preparing for a major competition - a group of underdogs looking to pull-off the major upset against all odds. And while that may be the basic framework of “Step”, trust me, you've never seen this story before.
Director Amanda Lipitz is a two-time Tony-winning producer of such shows as including “Legally Blonde: The Musical”, “The Humans” and “A View from the Bridge”. Lipitz was born in Baltimore, the setting of “Step”.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women first opened its doors in 2009. As the film begins it's the Fall of 2015, the start of Senior Year for the charter school's first graduating class.
About 20 of the students are involved in the Step program. As Lipitz stated in a recent interview, “Step is not dance. It’s an art form that originated in the mines of Africa.” The highly-choreographed routines feature the performers making music with their bodies - stomping, clapping, posing and chanting. Step demonstrates empowerment, confidence and strength. Lipitz focuses on the lives of three senior students, each with their own, unique story:
Blessin' is the founder of the school's Step team and the leader of the group. Her dreams of stardom get in the way of her academic responsibilities. Blessin' lives in poverty with a single mother and countless relatives.
Cori is the class valedictorian. Her goal is to get into Johns Hopkins University, but she'll need the grades and the money to make that happen.
Tayla is a devoted team player with an overly-supportive mom. She has the most financially-stable family structure of the three.
The #1 goal of the principal, teachers, guidance counselor and parents is for all the girls in the Class of 2016 to go to college. The goal of the school's new Step coach is to win the big regional competition at the end of the year. These adults provide leadership and encouragement for the students, and they bring amazing character and humanity to the film.
While there is this competition coming-up that we watch the girls working for (and that they've never won before), the brilliance of "Step" is that Lipitz takes the focus away from "the big game" and puts it on the girl's quest to win the "bigger" game - getting into college. That "step" become so much more important.
We watch with complete, undivided attention, the daily struggles of these young women, as they deal with their personal challenges involving relationships, responsibilities and, in one case, just not having any food to eat - all amidst the city of Baltimore's on-going racially-charged environment, triggered by the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore Police Officers.
By the end of the school year we're more nervous as these young ladies open letters from admission offices than at the outcome of the tournament. Lipitz makes us care so much about these girls - as people. It's a remarkable achievement.
Technically, "Step" is tightly shot and edited, with appropriately inspirational music. Every scene is compelling, invigorating and inspiring, taking us on a breathless journey. I haven’t experienced this level of power, grit and genuine heart from a film all year.