Here is a documentary you are bound to leave filled with joy and hope, unless you are a deeply cynical and suspicious person. It certainly hits all the right notes, sticking to the tried and true formula of feel-good stories about inspiring individuals overcoming hardships.
It's all about context, of course. It's one thing to celebrate a film that focuses on a group of young black women spending their senior year trying to win a regional championship with the step team they founded in the sixth grade -- and that is absolutely worth celebrating. The year in question occurs in the wake of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, and the ensuing violent protests. The young women incorporate Black Lives Matter themes into their performances, adding weight to their already plainly obvious talent.
One thing Step fails to do, however, is address the degree to which these young women are themselves privileged -- and I mean that only comparatively. The clearly come from families with their own challenges comparable to those of many others. But they also attend an all-girls charter school that focuses on getting the entire graduating class accepted into colleges, and they do this as a result of having won a lottery.
I couldn't help but wonder: how compelling might the stories be of the exponentially larger number of young black women who aren't so lucky? Who don't win this lottery? That's just not how these movies are done. Filmmakers and audiences alike want to see the stories about winners, be they through hard work or by chance, or both. And to be fair, there's a healthy mix of both for these young women. Without this school, after all, none of these kids would have had these opportunities.
How did director Amanda Lipitz know this team was the right one to follow, though? I always wonder this when watching documentaries about teams attending competitions. Do they have a crew who follow countless participants or teams, and then in the end focus the editing on select kids who go the distance? I must admit to a moderate amount of my own suspicions. When it comes to the faculty we see in the school, or the family members: how much might they be playing to the cameras? Surely having a camera crew following you around is a massive distraction.
Therein lies the trick, though: the editing. God knows how much footage wound up on the cutting room floor, but what's onscreen emanates nothing but authenticity, genuine hopes and dreams, some nearly crushed and some rising out of ashes. I couldn't help but to be moved by this movie and the people in it, both the kids and several of their parents. Only about four of the students get a whole lot of focus. Again I wonder about the others on the team. How much time did they spend in front of the camera, expecting to see themselves in a movie? All this just goes with the territory.
At least the entire team gets showcased in several step performances. If you don't know -- as I did not -- step is a percussive dance, using no music, creating rhythms through the sounds and stomps and claps and chants. It's a little like Bring It On but without all the cattiness. Instead of trying to elicit "school spirit," it's a dance that presents as an art with its own merits. And these kids are very good at it. I actually wish there were more full routines in Step than it has.
Ultimately, Step emotionally manipulates its audience just like any effective movie does. It's all in the manner of telling the story, and this could have been told many other ways. To its credit, this is the way that works best, the way that gets people talking about it, and gets people watching it. These young women may be luckier than a lot of their peers, but that doesn't make them any less worthy of our attention.