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Sundance Film Review: ‘Step’

Variety logo Variety 1/22/2017 Geoff Berkshire
© Provided by Variety

Documentaries aren’t often discussed in terms of their ability to entertain, but “Step” might be the most infectiously entertaining doc since Chris Rock’s “Good Hair.” This ebullient chronicle of a Baltimore girls step team’s senior year matches a fascinating, worthy subject with unabashedly joyful filmmaking. It’s a crowdpleasing winner from Broadway producer and first-time feature helmer Amanda Lipitz that has what it takes to appeal across generations and emerge as one of the year’s prime doc attractions.

Call it “Hoop Dreams” for the social media generation. At a breezy 83 minutes, “Step” isn’t going for a deep dive into every aspect of its subjects’ lives, but it weaves multiple narrative strands together in a flashy package that opens a very specific window into life in 2016 America. Given where we’re at, it’s not an overstatement to say what’s revealed is essential viewing.

Lipitz focuses on three step team participants in particular: captain Blessin Giraldo, a step prodigy who shines during performances but struggles both at school and at home; Cori Grainger, an ace student hoping for a scholarship to the school of her dreams; and Tayla Solomon, a straight-talker whose vivacious single mom acts as the team’s unofficial den mother.

Along with the rest of the step team seniors, they’re on a mission to accomplish two significant goals in their final year at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women: get accepted into college, in keeping with the school’s mission of sending every graduate on to higher education, and win the Bowie State step competition, which draws on schools from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

What Lipitz didn’t know when she initially embarked on the project (and, full disclosure, she and her mother, Brenda Brown Rever, were involved in the charter school’s founding in 2009), was that filming would begin in earnest after Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died while in police custody, leading to protests and riots. Without becoming expressly political, “Step” stands as a firm rebuttal to rampant misunderstandings about both the Black Lives Matter movement and life in poor urban areas. There’s no need to shoehorn any of that material into the story; it’s all seamlessly a part of the time Lipitz has captured.

These girls are each looking for their own way out of tough circumstances, but their family and social situations are notably diverse. Blessin has the roughest road living with a mother, Geneva, who suffers from depression and anger issues and checks in and out of her daughter’s life with alarming unpredictability. Cori’s mother, Triana, recently married a longtime boyfriend, and the couple do everything they can to provide for their blended family. And Tayla is perpetually embarrassed by her helicopter mother, Maisha, a proud correctional officer whose boundless love for her daughter provides some of the film’s most amusing and affectionate moments.

Without any fuss, Lipitz has made a film deeply rooted in intergenerational relationships between women, which extends to the team’s no-nonsense coach Gari McIntyre (a newcomer to the school who introduces herself by saying she lives on the street where Gray passed away) and devoted college counselor Paula Dofat. When Blessin looks in danger of slipping through the cracks, both women push her to bring the same enthusiasm she applies to step to her academic future.

And then there are the step routines. Every bit as energetically depicted as they were in last year’s Sundance mini-breakout “The Fits,” we’re treated to glimpses of every stage in the process, from rehearsals to competition. That’s where Casey Regan’s deft camerawork and Penelope Falk’s sharp-eyed cutting really shine. As Blessin notes early on, “We make music with our bodies. That’s some sick stuff.”

“Step” is so much fun, it could cause some doc purists to gripe at the glossy touches (you won’t find a montage set to Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” in a Frederick Wiseman film), but that’s where the film may ultimately prove most powerful. By offering some of society’s most marginalized members — young black women — their time in the spotlight without any inkling of condescension or exploitation, Lipitz does more than just entertain or enlighten. She’s breaking down barriers in nonfiction cinema.

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