★★★ / ★★★★
There is something universally relatable about stories involving high school students making their way toward graduation, but it takes a certain willingness to be as specific as possible so audiences are able to connect with the subjects in a special way. Director Amanda Lipitz’ inspiring documentary “Step” focuses on three seniors attending the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school that strives for every student to graduate high school and get accepted into college. Although Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon are so different from one another, they are members of the step dance team led by Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, who, unbeknownst to the students, is a high school dropout.
The film is appropriately titled not just because the subjects are on the same dance team. It is because a common theme is the girls taking numerous steps toward a potentially brighter future, whether it be improving their grade point averages so they could be considered by colleges or applying for financial aid because none of their families could afford tuition. The material is not afraid to sit down with their subjects to ask the difficult questions such as what they think or feel when electricity has been shut off at home and there is no food in the refrigerator until food stamps arrive.
The every day realities of what the trio go through are presented with honesty and complexity without losing track of the students’ resilience. I related most with Cori, the introvert and valedictorian with great aspirations. She may not be on camera as often as she should have been, given her magnetic presence and strong perception about where she comes from, but nearly every time she speaks one can sense a quiet power about her. Her goal is to get accepted to Johns Hopkins University; she may have the grades, letters of recommendation, and competitive SAT scores, but her family is in an extreme financial bind especially since her step-father has been laid off. Waiting for her computer screen to load as she and her family check on her acceptance status is first-rate thriller.
But the heroes of the film come in the form of parents, coaches, and counselors. Perhaps the most gripping moments involve students having a one-on-one meeting or discussion with these adult figures. Grades are talked about. Behavior toward others and way of thinking about oneself are corrected. There are small victories toward one’s goals. Setbacks are disheartening and frustrating because we know they can do better but sometimes they choose not to. Meetings can turn emotional at any moment considering the pressures the students experience from every direction. The material understands how it is like to be a senior and not being in a good place before high school ends, but it is willing show reality for what it is. Great documentaries are daring, unashamed, unblinking.
“Step” should be shown in high schools because of its honesty, sincerity, and great messages when it comes to perseverance. I loved the lesson about having to take a detour sometimes in order to get to one’s goals. Furthermore, I believe it has the power to inspire others to realize how lucky they are for having what they have, simple privileges they take for granted like never having to worry about not having food on the table. Because if African-American girls living in poverty can rise above it, what’s your excuse?