A veritable shoo-in for an Oscar nomination five months from now, “Step” borrows a familiar structure—the competition documentary—and lends it an urgent, headline-ripped specificity. Taking its formal cue from docs like “Spellbound” and “First Position,” it follows a high school girls’ step team in the months leading up to both a regional dance contest and their graduation as the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
This would be a tumultuous period for any 17-year-old trying to balance college admissions, academics, extracurriculars and personal relationships, but these universal issues are magnified by the young women’s socioeconomic status: They’re all African-Americans, from poor and working-class families, maturing in an age of police brutality and Black Lives Matter, of empty refrigerators and emptier college savings.
Producer-director Amanda Lipitz homes in on three exceptional girls. Blessin, who is raised by a single mother, is arguably the step team’s most talented competitor, but her woeful grades threaten her academic future. Cori, who lives in a crowded, blended-family household with five siblings, is a scholarly student and self-described introvert who relishes the liberating abandon of step. Tayla is an only child whose mother acts like a teenager herself when spectating at step class, but who patrols the streets of Baltimore as a corrections officer after hours.
“Step” balances the percussive liberty of dance lessons with the trying uncertainty of the college lottery, and these twin plotlines each generate emotional swells. If there’s a hero figure in “Step,” it’s Paula Dofat, the school’s college counselor, a person of deep compassion who believes in each of her students but who isn’t afraid to temper their expectations about college admissions. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, she tears up when making her case for Blessin to a panel of college administrators. Many in the movie’s audience will follow her cue.
For me, there was no moment more stirring than the step team’s mid-film performance at another area high school, in which their inspirational choreographer, Gari McIntyre, designed a routine around Black Lives Matter (“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” is integrated into the steps). As the crowd’s rumble builds into a cathartic standing ovation, the scene speaks to the visceral healing power of dance to communicate where words sometimes fail.
It’s arguably the apex of this site-specific movie, which opens not on the dancers but with news footage of the apprehension and subsequent death of Freddie Gray. Baltimore, as one of the nation’s racial flashpoints of recent years, becomes its own character as the movie progresses. Lipitz divides many of her scenes with images of the city’s murals dedicated to Gray and Baltimore’s black heritage, and we eavesdrop on conversations pertinent to racial justice and the dispiriting news cycles of the summer of 2015. Art can hardly be divorced from the surroundings of its making.
By nature of its brevity (its running time is 83 minutes) and its generally positive sheen, “Step” is not as profound, immersive or unflinching as a film like “Hoop Dreams,” yet it competes on the same hardwood. They’re both honest portraits of Americans overlooked or misrepresented by 90 percent of our media.
There are bound to be negative reviews for “Step” from a handful of Rotten Tomatoes contrarians, though it’s hard to fathom a coherent case for a C grade or lower. As a story about young women rising above the circumstances life has dealt them, this is a movie that can genuinely, and easily, change a lot of lives. How many products of Hollywood can say that?
“Step” is playing now at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura 24, and Regal South Beach Stadium 18. It expands to additional area theaters on Friday, Aug. 18.