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The 2017 Sidewalk Film Festival Reviews: Step (2017)

| August 28, 2017

Over the weekend of August 25 through 27, I had the pleasure of attending The 19th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival in my home of Birmingham, Alabama.  Over the next two weeks I’ll be taking an intimate look at each of the 11 films that I saw.

One of the reasons that I often impart to strangers that my favorite films are documentaries is because it is really true.  There is something about the documentary format that a narrative feature just can’t reach – or would ever dare to.  My favorites are those stories about lives being lived, the ups and downs of a particular life or group of lives and moving through the minefield of this thing called life.  Their successes are unpredictable and when a documentary strikes the right chord, it can take us along and let us live in someone else’s skin.

That, in many ways, is the chord struck by Amanda Lipitz’s wonderful documentary Step about a group of African-American high school girls living in Baltimore whose Step program becomes the fulcrum to elevate them out of the narrow destinies that their environment has prepared for them.  Going in we already understand that the girls are headed toward a championship, but what is remarkable is that we come to understand what is at stake.

Liptiz is a Baltimore native herself who has been working on Broadway and is now making her feature-film debut.  She has a sure hand at finding the most interesting subjects out of The Lethal Ladies, the step group who are the focus.  She finds three and takes us into their individual lives, young women whose academic trajectory is – they hope – pointed toward a college education.

Most prominent is the team’s captain Blessin Giraldo, a beautiful young woman whose personal style is something that we can plainly she has studied and worked to pull together.  There’s something outward in her personality that reveals the leader that we sense that she will become later in life.  She’s a woman of fierce energy and passion; the moment we meet her, we can feel the fire in her soul.

Yet, even as we mentally praise her intelligence and individuality, we sense that she is still a teenager through and through.  Academically, she stumbles.  Her mother Geneva does her best but is held back by apparently untreated bouts of depression.  This rubs off on young Blessin whose youth and impetuousness need a guiding hand, especially when she misses a month of school which causes her to be banned from the team.  The larger mother role here is provided by Paula Dofat, a college counselor who never panders to Blessin or any of the other girls.  Her single-minded goal is to provide these young woman with the financial and academic tools to be able to have a chance at a good education.  She struggles to make Blessin understand that her GPA is hemorrhaging.  In a heartbreaking moment, Blessin leaves her office and Paula breaks down crying – she understands what the immediate world has waiting if the girl fails.

Another subject with problems all her own, is Tayla Solomon.  Every bit a teenage girl, she no less has a smile three feet wide and a perspective on herself that one has to admire.  On the sidelines of step practice, she imparts a shameless bit of self criticism: “I’m like a notch down from Beyoncé, because I do still mess up. Beyoncé doesn’t mess up. But even if she does, she pulls it off so good and I just don’t even notice it.”  Tayla’s mother Maisha is a portrait of a strong mother.  Working as a corrections officer, she spends all of her off time with Tayla and the step group, often moving into the line to show them how it is done.  Maisha’s major concern with Tayla is boys, the company of whom she sternly forbids.

My favorite of the film’s subjects, however, is Cori Granger who could end up making a movie herself some day.  She seems to be one of those kids who is good at everything and knows how smart she is.  She is looking at a full scholarship (one of her prospects is Johns Hopkins) and being one of six children, she’s going to need it.  We don’t worry.  You can see in Cori the mind of someone who will go far in life.  The rougher edges brought on by the immaturity of being a teenager seems a little smoother than many of her other classmates.  Her mother Triana is her rock of which she says “My mom is like a magic wand in human form.”

The pressures in the girl’s lives are intersected by events going on out in the world.  This documentary was made at the moment that Freddie Gray was killed by police in 2015.  All around are monuments and memorials to people who died young and we understand the pressures that their environment presses upon them.  The distance to fall into a life of apathy, indifference and self-pity is much shorter than the higher goals of attaining a good education. When the girls of the step program begin to flounder, the urgency in their coach’s voice is palatable – you can feel it because you understand what is happening just beyond the walls of their high school.

That’s what is special about Step.  This is a story told almost exclusively by women, about women.  We know what is at stake and we understand what lies in store for these girls if they fail.  One of the Lipitz achievements is that she leaves the camera on her subjects long after they finish talking.  She allows the emotion in their eyes to reveal the person underneath.  We want them to succeed and our hope is that they can be inspired by the women who care very deeply about their destiny.  It is a hard road to succeed, but an even harder road if they do not.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary