Step is a moving documentary in spite of uninspired direction and editing because of the smart, talented and magnetic teenage girls preparing for their first steps into adulthood during their senior year at the charter school Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women soon after the extrajudicial killing of Freddie Gray. These girls deserved the Hoop Dreams treatment, but got a staggeringly abbreviated yet emotionally gratifying film instead.
Amanda Lipitz, the director, and her mother founded the school, which explains how Lipitz knew about and got access to the girls on campus, but it seems odd that Step only focuses on the girls of the school’s initial class during their senior year class instead of beginning to film earlier in their time at the school. One possible explanation is that Lipitz only decided to film the step team, which has not existed that long. While the documentary focuses on three senior girls in the team and frames it as their last chance to win a major competition, the movie is actually about how the students balance home life and prepare for getting into college interspersed with stepping.
Intellectually, I understand that you get tickets sold by promising spectacular performances, but I would have happily bought a ticket to see a bunch of girls trying to be the first generation in their families and the first class in their school to navigate the college admission process. These girls face a lot of pressure from the collective hopes and dreams of their community in addition to the innately nerve-wracking process of seeing how you measure up to the rest of the world. Step excels at depicting how impossible and alien the process is. If you can’t comfortably pay your bills every month, how can you even contemplate diverting what little funds you have to pay an exorbitant tuition cost? No one even tells these girls that education is not a guarantee that you will be able to pay your bills if you graduate from college now laden with a substantial student loan debt. Both the school administrators and the students are so focused on reaching this noble goal that there is only one moment of sober reflection on expense shown in the documentary. College is equated with survival and thriving. Understandably they entertain no other option because the students and their families believe that they have already fully explored that alternative through a lifetime of experience, and the psychological and financial burden outweighs the cost.
Step’s star is Blessin. The other two girls, Cori and Tayla, also share the spotlight. Cori, the valedictorian, shares her portrait with her close, blended big church-going family. Tayla’s mom, Maisha, is the unofficial assistant coach for the team. Lipitz nails portraying the best aspects of black mother daughter relationships, and when the daughters succeed, it is a mutual love fest of honoring and praising each other for their shared accomplishments. There is no sense of competition between the mothers and daughters. The mothers breathlessly want their daughters to do better than they did when they were their daughters’ age, and the documentary effectively characterizes the mothers’ involvement as a fervent wish backed by action to help their beloved children overcome many obstacles.
These girls care deeply about how they are seen and depicted so college and performing are tools that they use to express themselves and communicate their innate worth to a world that they correctly believe sees them as destructive. “That isn’t who we are,” one girl says in response to how CNN represented Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray. Please don’t tell them that The Wire is everyone’s favorite HBO show. You’ll break their hearts. They know that they matter, and they want you to know that they are special too. These girls know that they can become another victim to state sanctioned murder through no fault of their own. Step succeeds by making viewers as personally invested in their lives, but also concerned about whether or not these girls have access to the best tools to insure a favorable future.
Step does its school a disservice by starting at such a late stage in the girls’ time at the school and just restricting the film to life after school, which includes their home environment and college application sessions. The film misses the broader context of the students’ lives: academics. For example, as the captain of the step team, Blessin, struggles to improve her attendance and her grade point average, the documentary sympathetically reveals that it is hard to attend school if your mom suffers from depression, your dad is not an emotional or financial resource, and there is no food in the house. There is something missing, and the film implies that it is not entirely her fault, but since the filmmaker is a part of the school’s administration on some level as a founder, has the school done everything it could? Where is this school ranked in comparison to the other schools in Baltimore? Once the movie broadened its focus from dance competitions to the college process, it needed to include academics in its story; however, the film makes it seem like the school waited until her senior year to light a fire under her. I would hope that the administration did something throughout her junior year when she missed fifty-two days of school, and her grades plummeted. She has been going to the school there for six years! When people coach Blessin, they encourage her to apply herself without referencing what the film knows. So do the administrators know the whole story behind Blessin’s grades and absence? Step never shows us the answer so the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions.
Lipitz probably feels that it is sufficient to just let the scenes with the devoted college counselor, the personalized approach principal, and the encouraging step coach speak for themselves. They are remarkable women who care passionately about their girls, particularly Blessin, and tirelessly devote themselves to them, especially if and when the girls begin to fall behind. One of the most moving scenes in Step is when Blessin leaves the room, and Paula Dofat, the counselor, tearfully begs on behalf of Blessin. Yes, it is moving, but I still had a nagging question as to whether or not a school that had existed for only six years actually gave the best education to help these girls succeed once they got to college.
Step excels at individual portraits, but I left with no sense of the camaraderie among the girls, which is particularly strange considering they are a team. There are little to no scenes of actual classes or the group dynamics of the children outside of stepping and occasionally doing each other’s hair at each other’s homes. There is a conflict between Blessin and the other girls late in the film. We see the fallout, but have no idea what happened. At the end of the movie, even though Blessin is pleased with the end of her senior year, she seems more alone and isolated than ever. I would rather not see the fallout if I don’t know the whole story. Again Lipitz probably decided to let the team’s performance and the ratio of graduating students to college acceptance speak for itself, but it was an element of the story that was gravely underdeveloped given the crucial element of team building in stepping. I also had no real sense of the team’s standing in the field of competition until the end of the film other than the girls’ interviews.
After I saw The Fits, I wished for a documentary that would focus on black girls from a dance team. Step made my wish come true, but next time, I’ll have to be more specific about the talent behind the camera. Sometimes when a filmmaker cares so much about her subject or is so close to the people in her film, it is harder to structure a documentary that will help an audience enter her world. Fortunately for Lipitz, the girls and women of Step are so engaging and innately interesting that any viewer will still connect with them. Despite its flaws, I would encourage you to go to theaters for an emotionally resonant account of young ladies at the threshold of life. You may suddenly realize that the theater was dustier than you expected when tears come to your eyes.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.