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Step

This documentary was done by Tony-award winner Amanda Lipitz. When she was in her mid-20s I saw her production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (John Lithgow, Norbert Butz). It was fantastic.

She’s doing some documentaries, and this first one profiles three members of a step dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. It’s a charter institution that’s helping prepare inner city girls for college. We start off thinking it’s all about the big competition at Bowie State. They’ve never even placed when competing in it, and most of these girls are now seniors. It’s their last shot at the big price. Yet just as you think it’s another story about underdogs in the “big game” it becomes something much more. You end up rooting more for them to succeed in life, and make it into college. Especially after we see their home life.

I had a few problems with the first half of the movie. The first is the fact that the stepping is…a type of dance that’s not all that interesting to watch. The second is that I didn’t care for most of these characters. The staff at the school was terrific, and you can see how much they cared for these girls (one scene that had my wife and I bawling our eyes out, has a counselor pleading her case for a scholarship for one girl that’s in danger of not getting one).

Cori is the one you really root for. She’s the valedictorian, and has some lofty goals — a scholarship at Johns Hopkins being one of them.

There’s Tayla, whose mom is a corrections officer that shows up at all the practices, often embarrassing her. Just when you think she’s like that annoying father living vicariously through his son’s football prowess, she surprises us by sticking up for one of the girls that the others don’t care for. And that girl would be Blessin, who’s not always a blessing to those dealing with her diva like behavior. She’s the founder of the group, but as my wife had to keep pointing out to me when I said how much I disliked her on the drive home — “Look at what she had to deal with at home!”

Her mom has depression, doesn’t show up at school meetings, and is generally a mess.

Lipitz does her best to make us root for these girls. That makes sense, considering her mom founded the school (a fact I found out while researching this). And unfortunately, you can tell that this is a movie that’s almost like a promotional video for the school. Upon further research, I found the filmmaker’s father has a center named for him at Johns Hopkins, and is a member of the board of trustees. Hmmm…any guesses on if Cori will get in there? All of that information made me realize that perhaps the movie also withheld some other stuff from these girls’ lives.

Since this was filmed during the death of Freddie Gray, we get a fair amount of time devoted to that situation. It leads to a “hands up, don’t shoot” routine with “Black Lives Matter” signs, and a dance coach telling them that as black women, they’ll be treated horribly in life. Oy.

The second half of the movie won me over, and my wife couldn’t stop crying the entire time. Even though you’ve seen the scenes of kids opening letters from colleges, you can’t help but hope for good news as they smile, tearing into those envelopes.

Will they win the big competition? Will they get into the colleges they want? Will they have babies as teenagers, the way their parents did?

I thought about two much more interesting documentaries that dealt with kids in poverty — Spellbound (about various kids competing in the national spelling bee) and Hoop Dreams (about kids hoping for sports scholarships). I understand not every documentary can be as good as those two, but I still expected more.

Watch the documentary to find out.

2 ½ stars out of 5.