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Film review: 'Step'

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A welcome antidote to the horrors we're witnessing in the news, Amanda Lipitz's documentary, "Step," is a spirited crowd-pleaser that will thankfully leave you feeling just a little bit better about the world.

But before it lifts us up, "Step" sets the stage with some sobering scenes of turmoil, opening with footage of the protests and riots that rocked Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. While those protests aren't the focus here, the students we follow are thoroughly affected by them, and Lipitz makes sure that the fundamental issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement remain in the back of our minds throughout the film.

Training her cameras on the members of the Lethal Ladies step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women -- a charter school with a mission to ensure every one of its student moves on to college -- the filmmaker offers a different look at African-American inner-city communities. Lipitz tackles issues of poverty and what it means to be a young black woman in America today, but handles it in a way that's filled with humor, heart, and unadulterated joy.

In case you're unfamiliar: step is a group dance involving choreographed rhythmic claps, stomps, shouts, and chants. It's helpful to have at least a vague idea what the dance is, as Lipitz doesn't devote much time (or any, really) to explaining its origin or the rules of competition. We follow the Lethal Ladies during their preparations for the Bowie State step competition, an event the team has never been able to place in before. Though the film has its share of lively dance scenes, "Step" is about the team members' lives and plans for the future more than it is about the actual competition.

The documentary narrows its focus slightly to follow three graduating seniors on the team as they prepare to make their next steps (no pun intended) after high school. There's founding member Blessin Giraldo, who's learning that years of letting her studies take a backseat to a social life have put her at a disadvantage when it comes time for college applications. She's determined to set a new course for herself, but she'll need help to do it. An additional hurdle comes from the fact that her mother suffers from depression and anger issues, and though she tries, isn't always there for her daughter.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Cori Grainger has her eye on being named class valedictorian and is aiming to get into Johns Hopkins University with a full scholarship to study programming. Living with her mother, stepfather, and five siblings, Cori has a loving home life. Her attentive parents do everything to make sure their children succeed, but they still struggle to pay the bills. One of the documentary's most heartbreaking scenes comes as a devastated Cori sits on the front steps of her home and weeps when the power is shut off after her stepfather loses his job. Lipitz remains cognizant of the ways that growing up poor and black can turn everyday stresses into seemingly insurmountable odds.

Tayla Solomon is the only child of a single mother, Maisha, who's become an unofficial den mother to the group. Though Maisha's helicoptering ways are sometimes a source of embarrassment, she's fiercely protective of her daughter, keeping her on the right track when outside elements (namely boys) threaten to distract her.

As we learn each of these girls' stories, Lipitz invites the viewer to become invested in their future and root for them to succeed. Under the guidance of new coach Gari McIntyre, the step team provides the girls with an outlet for the struggles and frustrations they face. The film is a potent demonstration of the truth in the idea that it takes a village: each girl's journey is truly a team effort, as their teachers, coaches, counselors, and parents are in constant communication.

There's a good reason "Step" earned a US Documentary Special Jury Award for "Inspirational Filmmaking" at Sundance this year. It's empowering, joyful filmmaking, showing us a group of bright, strong young women and reminding us that even when things seem tough, there's always hope for a brighter tomorrow.

"Step" will debut at The Little Theatre as part of The Black Cinema Series, co-presented by the Rochester Association of Black Journalists. There will be a panel discussion after the 7 p.m. showing on Friday, August 18.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the comedy, "Brigsby Bear."

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