Chronicling the senior year of an all-girl high school’s Step Dance team, Amanda Lipitz’s Step is without a doubt one of the most genuinely moving, inspirational and thoroughly entertaining films of the year. This thrilling debut documentary manages to carry an important socio-political message without ever being preachy, moralising or unnecessarily provocative. Set against a background of turmoil and the severe poverty of an inner-city Baltimore neighbourhood, the film shines a light on the struggles faced by a group of girls on the cusp of womanhood, hoping to be the first generation in their respective families to be accepted into college and hopefully go on to to fulfil their full potential.
Founded in 2009, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women aims to first and foremost help young underprivileged girls from African-American backgrounds prepare for college. With attentive tutoring and daily encouragement from their passionate teachers, the step dance team also hopes to win a highly sought-after trophy in an upcoming competition. The film follows three members of the team for their entire senior year under the supervision of their deeply passionate headteacher, who hopes to see the girls achieve their academic goals. There’s highly talented misfit Blessin, who is finding it hard to strike the right balance between home and school; Cori whose impressive grades could see her win a full scholarship to John Hopkins university; and Tayla, a bright and funny teenager who is under the perpetual watchful eye of her thoroughly invested mother.
Emotions run high when the girls are invited to share their thoughts and fears candidly. Despite some initial “playing to the camera” antics from Blessin and Tayla, the girls eventually settle into a more subdued routine, which sees them speak honestly about the struggle they face daily. With talk of race riots, and a frank and honest discourse about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, Step manages to strike the right balance between being entertaining whilst remaining urgent. Showcasing the deprived areas in one of the richest countries on the planet, Lipitz makes a valid commentary about the importance of educating girls of all backgrounds.
Focusing the bulk of the narrative on the relationship between the girls and their respective mothers, Lipitz allows her audience to come to terms with how decades of poverty and illiteracy in black neighbourhoods meant that generation after generation of African-American girls lost out on the opportunities afforded to more affluent communities.
Step is a beautifully crafted masterpiece which manages to reconciles cinema audiences with the glory days of educational documentaries such as Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have (Être et Avoir, 2002), and goes a long way towards cementing the idea that you don’t have to be rigid in order to make a valid political point. Step’s jubilant and playful tone is what the medium has been crying out for in the last decade. Lipitz’s ability to make her audience fall head over heels for her subjects is sure to earn her praise and even prizes come awards season. A joy to watch.
Step is released on August 11th.