The movies have given us lots of reasons to feel exhilarated this summer, from the pop-feminist stylings of Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman” to the goofy ensemble kick-in-the-pants that is “Girls Trip.” And now we have “Step,” a soaring, heart-bursting portrait of a group of intrepid Baltimore high school students guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet — whether out of vicarious triumph, overpowering pure emotion, or simply to pay tribute to the superheroines at the core of its infectiously inspiring story.
When filmmaker Amanda Lipitz began following the story, in 2009, her intention was to record the first year of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an all-female charter school Lipitz had helped found. When a sixth-grader named Blessin Giraldo started a step dancing team, Lipitz — a theater producer with such shows as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Legally Blonde” to her credit — immediately saw the cinematic potential. “Step,” Lipitz’s impressive feature documentary debut, follows Blessin and two fellow students, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, as high school seniors, during a year spent navigating schoolwork, college applications, financial aid forms and an upcoming step championship at Bowie State that the BLSYW team — called the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore — has yet to win.
We’ve seen this movie before: the scrappy underdogs who overcome obstacles to win the day in the course of a nail-biting final game/performance/showdown.
But “Step” takes those familiar elements to new, urgently timely places, as these intrepid young women confront deeply personal issues rooted in the history and present-day anxieties of their home town. Filmed in 2015, at the depths of heartbreak surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, “Step” doesn’t dwell on the outside forces conditioning the experience of its tough but fragile young subjects, but neither does it ignore them. All three young women embody the kind of grit and self-confidence that are now believed to be key factors in future success. Still, the film manages to question — albeit tacitly — the indifferent or even hostile social structures that surround them as they continually fight for their own dreams.
Lipitz couldn’t have found more vivid or sympathetic protagonists for “Step,” in which the shy Tayla confidently announces that her dance skills are just a notch down from Beyoncé’s and in which Cori calls her indefatigably supportive mother “a magic wand in human form.” Cori, part of a big, blended family of limited means, is the valedictorian of her class, with her eye on Johns Hopkins University, if she can pull together the $50,000 tuition. Tayla, the daughter of a ferociously protective single mother named Maisha, is on a quietly reassuring track until a boyfriend arrives on the scene. Blessin, whose mother manages mental-health cases, is at the most risk, her falling grades prompting more than one come-to-Jesus meeting with BLSYW’s college counselor, Paula Dofat.
Dofat and step coach Gari McIntyre represent a caring, often funny Greek chorus throughout “Step,” which gracefully balances scenes of sometimes fraught home life, tearful personal reflection and tense college-prep meetings with exuberant practice sessions of the aggressive, foot-stomping dance style of its title. No spoilers here, but this movie fires on every cylinder, investing viewers in personal stories that couldn’t have higher stakes and inviting them on a journey that pays off in ways expected and utterly surprising. As indomitable practitioners of precision, discipline, creativity and perseverance, the Lethal Ladies are right on time: We all could use a little “Step” in our lives these days, if only to remind us to keep trudging ahead, with as much swagger as possible.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements and obscenity. 83 minutes.