Amanda Lipitz’s Step is a documentary about competitive stepping that’s also a glossy, inspiring, and ultimately frustratingly shallow portrait of three girls preparing for the life-defining transition from high school to college. Opening her film with an intense montage that juxtaposes footage of the protest surrounding the murder of Freddie Gray with images of young black girls performing militant step routines, Lipitz attempts to situate the story of Cori, Tayla, and Blessin—members of the step team at their all-female charter school—within the contemporary political milieu of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the film is less interested in step as an art form or sociopolitical phenomenon than as a metaphor for personal growth.
The girls are members of the first graduating class at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), whose mission is to send each and every graduate on to higher education. Lipitz turns a sympathetic eye on the school, detailing the impassioned work of the school’s administrators, particularly its director of college counseling, Paula Dofat, who works tirelessly to place every girl in the college of her dreams—from nerdy Cori, the presumptive valedictorian who dreams of attending Johns Hopkins, to Blessin, a step maestro whose spotty attendance in previous school years has left her with a 1.1 GPA and few post-high school prospects. While there’s no doubting the tireless commitment of BLSYW’s faculty, Lipitz offers such a varnished portrayal of the school that the film often feels like a commercial.
Step is at its most moving when it homes in on the role of the girls’ mothers in their lives, finding humor and pathos in the loving but often antagonistic dynamic between generations. Laidback and sardonic Tayla makes a hilarious foil to her boisterous, in-your-face mother, while Blessin struggles with a mom who suffers from bouts of depression that sometimes keeps her from being there for her daughter. Lipitz is attuned to the cross-generational interplay of personality and temperament, the way some daughters seem so unlike their mothers at first glance but share an almost primordial affinity.
While Lipitz depicts these relationships with a canny and sympathetic eye, her canvas is too small to capture the full breadth of the girls’ lives. Throughout, it’s hard to shake the impression that Lipitz is withholding the messy details that might have complicated the film. At one point, Blessin is seen on a date with her boyfriend, but no sense is given of how deep their relationship is or whether she really cares for him; he’s only seen as a distraction from her goals. Lipitz is more interested in offering these girls’ lives as a crowd-pleasing narrative of self-improvement that shows how a strong internal drive and a quality support network can overcome poverty and self-doubt. By fitting Cori, Tayla, and Blessin’s lives into a predetermined narrative arc, Step reduces the girls to plucky, up-by-the-bootstraps archetypes.