The documentary Step profiles three members of a step dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School For Young Women, a small girls’ college-prep charter institution, as they go through their last year of school and prepare for a big annual step competition at Bowie State. There’s Tayla, the everyteen whose mom, a corrections officer, lives vicariously through her; Cori, the valedictorian of the senior class, who has her mind set on a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins; Blessin, the team’s founder and resident diva, who was kicked off the team last year because of her dismal GPA. As for their teammates, we don’t as much as learn their names; Step’s first-time director, Amanda Lipitz, keeps the film as slick, flattering, and sound-bite-driven as a well-made fundraising video. Over and over, it pitches us reasons to care about these young women—an all-too-perfect example of a documentary that exists to make people feel good for watching it.
To her credit, Lipitz has found some interesting personalities—especially Blessin, whose confidence (she can almost seem like a twentysomething actor plunked down among real teens), disappointment, and absenteeism dominates Step much the same way it dominates the team’s practices. (After hearing “There’s no I in team” for what is probably the millionth time, one of the other girls mutters, “There’s definitely an I in Blessin.”) Blessin’s mom, Step tells us, struggles with depression so severe that none of the teachers or staff at the school have ever actually met her; Cori’s mom had her at 16, and though she’s grown up to be a model parent, their family still struggles to pay the bills and keep the power on; and Tayla’s knows the step routines better than most of the team. It’s always a treat to hear Baltimore’s unusual accent in the wild, to hear ordinary teenagers try to make sense of their lives and goals, or to see something that explores relationships between mothers and daughters.
There are so many other things that Step touches on. These three are black teens in Baltimore in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray (Step was filmed during the 2015-16 school year), aspiring first-generation college graduates, young women looking at their dreams from behind the glass wall of poverty. But it only touches, prying no more than a helpful guidance counselor might. The world the girls really exist in is seen, all too literally, from a distance, through telephoto lenses that scan across neighborhood residents hanging out at corners or on park benches from a block away. The particulars of even something as simple as stepping itself—how the team actually choreographs their routines, for instance—remain fuzzy, and by the end of this brief and breezy doc, much still remains unspoken or unexplored. More than once, we see interview subjects cry, but who knows what feelings they might have beyond the ones they explain out loud to the camera.
The Baltimore Leadership School For Young Women itself is painted in the best light, but of course it would be; Lipitz’s mother founded it, a fact that Step doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge. Nor does it bother to mention the fact that the filmmaker’s father has an entire center named after him at Johns Hopkins, where he was formerly on the board of trustees. It might not teach you to be a documentarian, but money sure can buy some uplifting endings.