Picking subjects for a documentary is risky business. Recording aspects of reality regarding events already occurred is one thing; you know the outcome – the difficulty is to make the re-telling interesting. But when you’re documenting something as it’s unfolding, with no clear vision as to how things will conclude, filmmakers can never be sure where the film is going, or whether in the end they even have a film.
In the new documentary, STEP, director Amanda Lipitz followed a high-school step dance team during its senior year, and the result is exhilarating. Set against a feeling of unrest, even despair in the largest independent city in America, Baltimore (it’s not part of any county), STEP documents something quite remarkable. It records what happened when the principle at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLYSW) declared it was her goal to ensure that every member of the senior class was accepted to and graduated from college. But the film is more than that.
By opening with TV newsreels of the violent 2015 protests and riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, the young man arrested for possessing what the police alleged was an illegal switchblade, the film sets a backdrop of constant unrest. Those clips illustrate the hurdles of everyday, inner-city life that many Baltimore residents in the black community are forced to climb in order to simply get through the day.
It doesn’t politicize what happened to Gray, and it doesn’t wave the Black Lives Matter banner high atop of every scene throughout the film. But by witnessing the aftermath and the public response to Gray’s death, and hearing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake state that this was “One of our darkest days as a city, and we’re much better than this,” the film makes you constantly aware of the challenges many have to endure in ways that other residents from other areas of the city, and even around the country, never have to consider.
There are 274 days of school to go until graduation. Director Lipitz centers those days on the girls of the step team. Difficulties of the classroom are one thing; issues of family and home-life are another, but when those young women are practicing for step, there develops a major difference to performance and attitude. For many of these girls, step turns into life, and the desire to win in life becomes all encompassing.
At the beginning of the school year, we’re introduced to step’s new coach Gari Mcintyre, referred to as Coach G. “I’m the only person in my family with a degree,” she tells the girls, adding for the record that she lives on the street where Freddie Gray died. Her desire and enthusiasm for getting the step team not only to the finals at year’s end but to see that these girls succeed in all aspects of school life is contagious. Her t-shirt displays the letters PhD across the top, followed by it’s real meaning: Pretty Hungry and Determined.
Instead of covering all the girls in the team, the film centers on three. First there’s Blessin Giraldo who states for the camera that step is a passion and she’s good at it. “We’re making music with our bodies,” she explains. But life at home isn’t easy. Blessin struggles with grades. A meeting at school with teachers and parents regarding financial aid for college is of overriding importance, but getting her depressed mother to leave the house is not quite as simple. “I will be there, and that will be square,” her mother insists. But on the night, Blessin’s mother is a no-show.
Then there’s Cori Grainger, who tells the camera, “I’m an introvert. Step is everything I am not.” But when practicing step, she becomes a different person, channeling her energy into those aggressive moves in a way she could never display in day to day life. Born into a family with six siblings – her mother had Cori when she was just sixteen – like Blessin, life at home is a constant struggle. At one point while filming, her father loses his job, the bills pile, and the power is cut.
Completing the trio of the film’s focus is Tayla Soloman, raised by a single parent, a mother who adores her daughter and shows it through good humor and an eagerness to make her daughter smile. “She’s an embarrassment,” Tayla states with a reluctant grin.
With the continual tough-love support of the school, the guidance and discipline of Coach G, the constant reminder of how difficult life in the real world is going to be, and the work required to not only survive but to succeed once high-school is over, STEP is more than a document of a final year. It’s a hugely entertaining, often broadly funny account of what happened, leading up to the excitement of the step finals. Considering that the year before, the eleventh grade team lost at every level, what happens in the senior year is touching and genuinely ennobling. Like an action movie, STEP is an unexpected, inspirational thrill ride.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 83 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)