Founded in 2008, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a charter school with a goal of seeing all its graduates succeed in college. Its educators and administrators set high standards and expect greatness from the girls in their charge. Academics are paramount, and failure is not an option.
For the students at BLSYW, though, it’s more than just a school. It’s a haven in a rough neighborhood; a support network often far more dependable than family; and a launch pad for talent, passion and futures so bright these girls’ll need shades.
It’s a glimpse into those trials, tribulations and triumphs that Step delivers in one of the year’s best documentaries, as it follows three young women in the school’s first graduating class. They’ve been together since middle school, the year they started at BLSYW and also founded the school’s step dance team. The film chronicles their lives both on and off the stage as their senior year winds down, through college applications, dicey friendships and one major dance competition.
On one very basic level, Step is like every other sports documentary: there’s a team, they practice, they head to the big competition. It’s a great formula and, in Step as in every documentary that’s ever used it, it works.
Thankfully, director Amanda Lipitz didn’t stop at crafting yet another sports doc. What she’s pieced together in following the women, their mothers, their coaches and their advisors during this transformational time in their lives is so much more. It’s difficult and frustrating, beautiful and inspiring. And if it doesn’t leave you motivated to finally get off your ass and start making more of your life, well, you may just be a lost cause and what are we all doing here anyways?
Lipitz focuses in on three subjects – Blessin, Tayla and Cori – who each face challenges at home and school as they navigate their first tentative steps into young adulthood. They’re making the kind of grown-up decisions that will impact the trajectory of the rest of their lives, without the benefit of a lifetime of experience to know how best to make them. Anyone who’s been a senior in high school can more than relate.
Cori is the quiet, smart one. In step practice and on stage, she’s bold; she’s not shy about putting her all into the routines. But she’s a brainiac at heart, more comfortable hitting the books and acing her tests. She’s got her heart set on a great college, and she’ll need all the support she can get to make it there.
Tayla is fun and funny, and one half of a dynamic duo with her charismatic (read: embarrassing) mother. It’s just the two of them, and as the season progresses, her mom becomes as vital to the team as Tayla is, a reliable cheerleader, mentor and disciplinarian. Tayla hits a rough patch, and its her mama bear who steps in to get the girl back on track.
And then there’s Blessin. She is easily the most captivating character in the film, and not just because she is legit beautiful (it’s a beauty so startling, it’s clearly a decision to not make mention of it in the film). Struggling in the classroom, what she doesn’t manage in her grades she more than makes up for in drive and confidence on the dance floor. She’s a total pro, and her ambition is both her greatest strength and her biggest challenge. It drives the whole team to be better, and drives her apart from the girls who’ve been her best friends for years.
Each young woman balances her love of step – that pounding, rhythmic group choreography with an intensity that jumps off the screen – with her college goals and the reality of difficult home lives. Perhaps because Lipitz has been involved with the school since its inception, she manages to capture moments with each girl, their mothers and the staff that might normally be off-limits. Blessin bonding with her nephew one moment only to disclose in the next that she has nothing to eat in the house. Cori resolute about her future even as the electricity at home has been turned off (it’s a credit to Lipitz that she catches the real truth of this moment, as a moment later, Cori breaks down in tears). Tayla’s mom learning of her daughter’s recent misbehavior and the sheer ferocity with which she responds.
Of course, there’s still a team to root for in Step, and alongside the story of each young woman, Lipitz doesn’t forget the story arc she’s crafted for us. So the film concludes with a much-anticipated regional competition for this team of strivers and dreamers, fulfilling that sports doc formula.
It’d be a disservice to spoil how that turns out, of course, or to share how each of our subjects fares by the end of the film. Instead, I’ll simply assure you that Step achieves that rare, welcome feat not many films can claim: it leaves one better off for having seen it – inspired, moved and maybe even changed for good.
STEP – dir Amanda Lipitz. Opens in Chicago Friday, August 4. Official Site
Passes the Bechdel Test: Yes
Passes the DuVernay Test: Yes