2017, PG, 83 min. Directed by Amanda Lipitz.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 11, 2017
Let’s hear it for the Lethal Ladies of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. They are members of the step team at the city’s first all-female charter school, whose mission it is to have all of their high school graduates admitted to college. Three members of the BLSYW step team’s first graduating class of 2016 are profiled in this documentary, along with the struggles and triumphs they and their classmates experience during their journeys toward matriculation. In addition to problems various girls confront regarding academics, family life, and/or endemic poverty, one of the biggest challenges the students face is dealing with the tragedy and subsequent protests that engulfed Baltimore in April 2015 when Freddie Gray died from wounds sustained while in police custody. The three students who are the primary subjects of Step were in the spring semester of their junior year when Gray’s death rocked the city. It is subject matter they incorporate into their prize-winning step routine performed at the state competition in their senior, and final, year.
”Step is life,” says Blessin Giraldo, the team’s founder and leader, whose observation is adopted as the movie’s tagline. Despite her charisma and pluck, Blessin struggles with grades, school attendance, and life at home with her clinically depressed mother. Cori Grainger is a straight-A student, who is delighted to find in step an unreserved alternative to her natural bookishness. Tayla Solomon, the only child of a single mother, suffers a typical teenager’s embarrassment over her mother’s total involvement with the step team. These three are worthy screen subjects, whose lives and senior struggles are demonstrative of situations faced by young African-American women in cities across America. Frustratingly, Step, on occasion, skips over some of the roiling turmoil, especially in the instance of Blessin’s complicated road to graduation.
Step has been directed by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz, who makes her feature-film directing debut here. Lipitz has made dozens of fundraising documentaries for philanthropic organizations over the years, and it’s difficult not to regard Step in this light. At Sundance this year, the film won a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking, adding to its cachet as a promotional device. This is not meant as a knock on the film as much as an acknowledgment of its limitations as an unfettered documentary. Accepting these limitations, however, in no way impedes a viewer’s desire to stomp and clap along with these Lethal Ladies. The music by Raphael Saadiq also belongs in the film’s plus column, helping to make Step one of the feel-good documentaries of the year.