It’s a shame that so many documentarians believe their job description is limited to simply presenting a story in the most perfunctory fashion. It’s as if they believe their subjects’ compelling narratives will negate any other considerations. Sometimes a good story can be sufficient for a film to exist, but that doesn’t inherently mean it will be served well by its framers.
Such is the case with Amanda Lipitz’s debut feature Step, a blandly inspirational doc about the high school step dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Lipitz chronicles the senior year of the school’s inaugural class as they struggle to maintain their grades, get accepted into college, and become state step champions, all while external social forces threaten to nullify their efforts. For these young women, step functions as both a creative outlet and an escape from the myriad outside pressures with which no teenager should have to contend. Believing in oneself isn’t merely pabulum to the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, the colloquial name for the step team, but a mantra that fuels their determination to prove to an indifferent and/or hostile society that they can be achievers.
Though Lipitz clearly believes that these voices should be amplified, especially in such a politically fraught time, she does them no favors by instilling her film with such a diffuse focus. Step ostensibly follows three senior members of the dance team — Blessin Giraldo, the team’s founder and captain whose confidence outpaces her academic abilities; Cori Granger, a top student banking on a full-ride to Johns Hopkins; and Tayla Soloman, the only child of a single mother desperate to see her daughter leave the inner city — but the film serves too many other masters to ever let the drama of their lives take center stage. Lipitz also covers the member’s difficult home lives, the BLSYW administration’s efforts to get every senior into college, as well as the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s tragic death at the hands of the police. Amidst all that material, Step mostly sidelines Cori and Tayla’s stories in favor of Blessin’s when it becomes clear that she’s the true star of the film. In the process, Lipitz picks up and drops these threads seemingly at random, and too frequently leaves the actual machinations of step dancing behind.
Beyond the chronology of a school year, Step offers little narrative or organizational structure to speak of. It’s possible that Lipitz and editors Penelope Falk and Arielle Davis wanted to capture the atypical, start-and-stop rhythm of the Lethal Ladies’ daily lives, especially since they are sadly filled with such uncertainty, but if that’s true, it doesn’t comes across well at all. While Falk and Davis do their best to cohere the footage, too much of the film feels slapped together, especially when it arrives at the fourth montage in an 80-minute running time. Individual moments stand out, such as the college acceptance scenes that will surely inspire audience applause, but it’s almost in spite of the film as a whole. Too often it feels like Lipitz simply relies on her subjects to do the heavy lifting as opposed to actually framing their story.
Moreover, it’s disappointing that there’s almost nothing cinematic about Step considering the visual potency of dance itself. Photographed by Casey Regan, Step depends on a handheld style that seemingly immerses the audience into the thick of its subjects’ circumstance, but ultimately this tactic works against the film’s interests. Putting aside the fact that the dance scenes are few and far between, they never actually pop on the screen in the way that Lipitz clearly desires. The big performances are filmed haphazardly for maximum coverage while the practices are never given any visual attention beyond a point-and-shoot approach. For a film about how dance empowers its participants to believe they can transcend their environment, it’s baffling that the dance scenes aren’t treated with more care.
This also reduces life outside dance to the broadest possible strokes. Lipitz visually underlines every single emotional moment to ensure the audience feels exactly what she wants, as if the literal story isn’t enough to accomplish such a task. By the umpteenth close-up of a tear-stained face, it feels as if Lipitz doesn’t trust viewers to come to their own conclusions about the material. She counterintuitively wants to get out of the way of her subjects’ stories but never believes that they can stand on their own feet.
Step succeeds in its smallest moments — an enthusiastic mother embarrassing her daughter, preparation for an innocent dinner date, fond recollections of church choir — precisely because it acts as a tribute to determined young women. Anyone with two eyes can see the admirable intentions on screen, but that alone doesn’t inherently translate to a compelling feature. Lipitz seemingly wants her film to please crowds and warm hearts, but she goes about it in the most passive way imaginable. Sometimes it’s necessary for a stronger hand to tell even the most worthwhile stories.