What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Step: Sometimes we all need a good cry

Posted 8:21 a.m. Thursday
Updated 8:46 a.m. Thursday

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How did a documentary make it in to Fox’s summer slate? This is the season for robots and outer space and explosions. Step, which is in theaters this week, feels very out of place in that way.

Step is the story of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The school is a public charter school founded in 2009 with the goal of getting every young woman accepted into college. Most of these girls’ families have little or no money to even think about sending their daughters to school. That’s why the girls are under so much academic pressure.

The step team adds pressure to some of the girls too. We follow three of them in this movie. Cori is on track to be the class valedictorian. She knows coding language. Her dream school is Johns Hopkins University, and she lives with two parents that can’t always afford to keep the lights on.

Next is Tayla. She is an above-average student that is a little rebellious but absolutely devoted to her mom. Oh Lord, Tayla’s mom! She is a gift from above! Not only is her story an interesting one to see play out -- an African-American corrections officer trying to explain the death of Freddy Gray (which is a through line in this movie) to her daughter while at the same time making sure her daughter understands that cops are not villains.

Beyond the emotional side of Tayla’s mother, there is the fact that she is just plain fun to watch. She shows up for every step practice. She knows all the moves. She isn’t afraid to jump in and coach any girl on the team even if that girl isn’t her daughter, even if the team’s actual coach (who’s Baltimore accent is a delight) didn’t ask for help.

Finally, there’s Blessin, who is kind of the hero of the movie. Blessin lives for the step team. Very early on we find out that she carries a 1-point-something GPA - not ideal if she is going to get into college. We also learn that her home life falls somewhere between depressing and chaotic.

Her mother tells the story of the time that she almost killed Blessin’s father with very little emotion in her voice. Her home is filled with her four children as well as a few grandchildren and nieces. Blessin’s story and Cori’s story couldn’t be more different, and it underscores how the pressure of a school like the Baltimore Leadership Academy is different for a kid like Blessin.

Cori is gifted. There’s no other word for it. She is an unnaturally smart kid. Blessin is gifted too, but her gift and her love is step. That doesn’t always jive with academic demands, and academics don’t always hold a kid like Blessin’s interests.

Step’s message is that it’s never easy being a kid, but if you are a black kid it’s a little bit harder. If you’re a black girl it can be a little bit harder than that. Everyone deserves a place in their life where their problems can melt away and they can shine.

It’s a noble message, and, overall, it’s a likable movie filled with joy and dancing and jokes. But the tone is a little uneven overall. There is no stepping through the movie’s first 30 minutes!

At times Step feels like the movie’s only goal is to make you cry or cheer, but that is kind of par for the course with documentaries about kids overcoming financial and academic struggles (think about The Undefeated). That’s where Step’s problem is so obvious. Director Amanda Lipitz seems to have had a story that she wanted to tell no matter what and then edited her footage around it rather than letting the story develop out of what she and her team shot.

By the end of the movie I don’t think I really learned anything about step.

I still think this is a movie worth seeing, especially if you are the type that enjoys a good underdog story and is always down for a good cry.

Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.


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