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'STEP' showcases the inner-city quest for a college education

Posted January 27

A still from "STEP" by Amanda Lipitz, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (Deseret Photo)

"STEP" — 3 stars — directed and produced by Amanda Lipitz; not rated, probable PG for language and adult themes; Sundance Film Festival

This year’s Sundance Film Festival features a documentary called “STEP,” which tells the inspiring story of a group of young women in inner-city Baltimore whose involvement in a dance team has been a key component of their pursuit of a college education.

The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a charter school founded in 2009 to promote educational achievement in the inner city. Soon after its founding, some 11-year-old students formed a step-dance team to add an extracurricular activity to their academic pursuits.

Director Amanda Lipitz has spent the intervening years filming the girls’ progress, and “STEP” picks up their story in 2015, as the girls are in their senior year and preparing for college. The team, led by a woman named Gari, has upwards of two dozen members but, for the documentary, Lipitz has zeroed in on three members of the team. Blessin is the team’s founder and captain, Cori hopes to get into Johns Hopkins University and Tayla just wants to survive the presence of her mother, Maisha, who acts as a de facto assistant coach for the team.

The timing for the documentary couldn’t have been more perfect. The senior members of the team are dealing with the stresses of college applications and frequent dance competitions in the middle of a city torn apart by riots and painted as a war zone on television. “STEP” is careful to contextualize its subject within its heated political environment and feels determined to reinforce a positive rebuttal to harmful and negative stereotypes.

Over the course of the documentary, it becomes easy to see how the girls’ support at home makes a positive or negative difference. Blessin has bold aspirations but struggles with attendance and grades, and she has a strained relationship with her single mother.

Cori’s mother, whom her daughter describes as “a magic wand in human form,” had her as a teenager and explains there was no question that she would keep her baby. Now married to Cori’s stepfather, she is determined to support her daughter’s academic pursuits.

Tayla’s mother, Maisha, is a constant presence in the film and frequent, quick shots of her daughter’s expressions should bring smiles to any parents in the audience. Maisha also happens to work as a corrections officer and shares her memories of her Baltimore childhood, when the police were a trusted presence in her neighborhood.

“STEP” follows the girls through practices and competitions, but Lipitz’s subjects seem to understand a college education is the real goal. College counselor Paula Dofat is shown often throughout the film, and the girls’ academic successes and failures are often more moving than anything that happens onstage.

Lipitz uses a straightforward documentary style to tell her story, moving chronologically and intercutting her candid footage with various interviews. She give us an intimate view of the girls’ day-to-day lives and reminds us that even though her subjects have noble intentions, they are still kids and flawed human beings.

Ultimately, “STEP” is an uplifting and sobering success story and a stark reminder of how important the role of family can be to the success or failure of children.

"STEP" is not rated but would have a probable PG rating for language and adult themes; running time: 83 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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