It’s amazing how many documentaries exist about teenage dance competitions. Most are essentially long advertisements for their schools strung together with inspirational tales of youths dancing over adversity. Amanda Lipitz’s ‘Step’ suffers from those conventions, but succeeds in offering some charming young subjects worth following through these motions again.
Lipitz’s dance school of choice is the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school established with the goal of sending all of its low-income students to college. The school was founded in 2009 and her subjects are the first to complete the full program heading to graduation. It’s a gang of teen girls on a step dancing team for whom the group offers an escape from troubled home lives and a place to feel creative and confident. You can probably guess with eerie accuracy where the story goes from there. Despite being a documentary, Lipitz has arranged her footage to hit all the beats of an inspirational high school drama. It’s rather predictable, conventional and even a little manipulative. However, it also works and packs a punch if you let it into your cold and cynical heart.
The three girls the roaming cameras focus on most fit certain archetypes that would likely even make it into a fictional version of this story. Cori Grainger is an egghead who aces her classes and is shooting for a scholarship with dancing as one of her stepping stones to success. Tayla Soloman is an only child of a mother who is perhaps a little too invested in her achievements; their relationship is a mixture of eye rolls and love. Blessin Giraldo is the requisite fashionista who seems to have a new look every time she appears on screen, but has a troubled home life that affects her studies and by association her future and spot on the dance squad. You stick with them through the dance competitions and their troubles. Drama comes in the form of college acceptance and rejection letters and lavish danceathons. It’s all the usual stuff, but the setting is also an African American community in Baltimore around the troubled times in 2015, so a political angle hangs in the backdrop.
Amanda Lipitz shoots it with care and flare. She’s clearly invested in these young women’s lives and captures some private emotional moments that sting. Unfortunately, there’s not really much room for nuance and subtext. The documentary is designed to be a big uplifting hug and advertisement for a school that the director’s mother founded. It’s a feel-good drama constructed out of reality, the sort of thing that’ll make viewers smile and cheer without delving into much that will make them think. It’s not a complicated film or even a particularly ambitious one. It’s as curated for mass appeal as a teen dramedy set in the dance world and just as disposable. However, it’s well made and the three central subjects are delightful to follow for a trim 80 minutes. In other words, this film is tailor made for brief theatrical run, briefer Netflix success, a gentle awards season push and then a lifetime of obscurity. There are plenty more where this came from, but at least ‘Step’ is sweet and watchable. That’s not always the case with these things.