Step is an inspirational documentary about a trio of high school seniors at an all girls charter school in Baltimore. The girls are on a step team. “Step” is a kind of synchronized, rhythmic dance centered around stomps, claps, body slaps, and group chants. It’s an aggressive, emphatic form of dance. While other forms of dance are graceful, step is strong.
The girls in the group need that strength. Their neighborhood in Baltimore is rough. The film opens with scenes of the protests following Freddy Grey’s death, and the girls go as a group to the Freddy Grey memorial at one point in the film. They all come from either single-parent or blended homes. Some of them can’t afford food at some points during the month. Step is an extracurricular activity that instills in them a sense of purpose and confidence. (Also, Step shows a different side of Baltimore that doesn’t get much press. This is a movie about inner-city families working hard to improve their station in life.)
Like other documentaries of this kind, Step builds toward an important competition. It’s a natural arc. But the day-to-day trials of the girls are the real focus of the film. The documentary follows the girls into their homes and goes out with them on dates. While the girls’ teachers may be, at times, mystified as to why some of the girls’ grades slip term to term, the filmmakers show us. We see the challenges they face.
The girls’ teachers and counselors get due attention too. It’s inspiring to watch the girls endeavor to get into college. It’s inspiring to watch the teachers strive alongside them too. The school is full of girls like the three we get to know. Those teachers give as much attention to every girl in the school. Astounding. The charter school the girls attend was created with the mission of graduating and matriculating every girl in the school. The year documented in the film is the first year the school has a graduating class. This the moment everyone in the school has been working toward.
Step is inspiring because it shows one of America’s core myths in action – if you work hard and get a good education, you can rise from the station you were born in to a higher station. Seeing girls like these make it tells us that anyone can make it.
The film also features one of the key features of that “rise out of poverty” myth – people who wish to elevate their station are required to leave their family and community. One of the girls wants to leave her community, because she knows if she doesn’t, she’ll get dragged down. Two of the other girls leave their families reluctantly if hopefully. Maybe they will return like some of their teachers to help the next generation. Maybe not. But the leaving itself is always part of these kinds of stories.
The film ends without following the girls into college, that is, the ones that make it into college (I’d hate to spoil the doc’s main narrative for you). They have more challenges ahead, but we feel like they are prepared. We hope so. We hope.
This review was originally pubished during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2017. – editor