STEP — Review by Cate Marquis

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The inspirational documentary STEP follows a girls’ step dance team at a Baltimore charter high school, both in their quest to win a big step dance competition and to get into college. The story takes place in the shadow of the unrest and protests that gripped Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. Echoes of Ferguson, Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter are present as well. Continue reading…

All of the African American girls in this documentary are low-income but they are lucky in one way. Their high school, Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, founded in 2009, is a small girls-only high school with the mission to get every one of its low-income students into college.

Lipitz’s film centers on the step team, and three girls in particular, as they prepare for a step competition, complete their senior year, and apply for college.

The premise may sound like BRING IT ON but the Lipitz’s true story is more heart-tugging and uplifting than the familiar narrative suggests. STEP debuted at Sundance earlier this year, to positive reviews and warm audience response. Director Amanda Lipitz, a Baltimore native, offers a surprisingly enjoyable story of struggle, obstacles, determination and ambition sure to pull in an audience.

The documentary singles out three girls, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon, but also puts a spotlight on two educators, the coach of the step team, Gari McIntyre, and the college adviser, Paula Dofat. Blessin is the co-founder of the step team, a beautiful, charismatic young woman with poise and positive attitude. The documentary spends a bit more time on her story but also gives time to the other two. Cori is proud of her perfect grades and has her heart set on attending Johns Hopkins, but winning a full-ride scholarship is her only chance. Tayla seems the shy one, working hard in school and on the team, but embarrassed by her mother’s big personality and nonstop cheering for her only child.

The girls are all attractive and personable, so it is easy to root for their success, both in winning the step competition and getting into the college of their choice. The film gives us time with each girl’s family, with their coach and college adviser, and often lets the girls speak for themselves. But what we see little of are other pressures the girls face – in the classroom, among peers or in their neighborhoods.

At first, it seems success is assured for all three but as the documentary unfolds, cracks emerge in that facade as the girls struggle with family and relationship issues, and one girl in particular seems really at risk. The girls talk a good game but conversations with the adults indicate not all is as smooth as the girls’ brave, think-positive talk would suggest.

Audiences cannot help but pull for these girls and admire their efforts but what more impressive is the school support. Both the coach and the college adviser give these girls constant support and direction. They are there to pick them up when they fall, or to correct their course when they waver. It is ultimately up to the girls, but these two educators never quit, and refuse to give up on the girls, even in the face of an unreliable parent. These two are the kind of teachers one would wish for all students, but which so rarely find.

As the date of the step competition, and graduation approaches, the documentary focuses more on the quest to get into college – and the challenge of paying for it – than on the dance routines. By the film’s end, Lipitz brings the two threads together, winning the step contest and getting into college, in an uplifting ending.

The girls’ journey touches our hearts but the real inspirational story is that of these two dedicated educators, the true heroes of STEP.

EDITOR’S NOTE: sTEP is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week (#MOTW) for July 28 to August 4

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.