Tri­umph­ing against all of the odds

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC

Not for noth­ing did “Step” win a Spe­cial Jury Award for In­spi­ra­tional Film­mak­ing at Sun­dance. Heart­en­ing and unashamedly emo­tional, it’s a cer­ti­fied crowd pleaser that doesn’t care who knows it.

Com­bin­ing per­for­mance and feel­ing in a way that re­calls the Os­car-win­ning “20 Feet From Star­dom,” “Step” is a doc­u­men­tary that feels like it is wait­ing to hap­pen, just cry­ing out to be made. Which is, given how many tears are shed on­screen and likely to be matched by the au­di­ence, an es­pe­cially ap­pro­pri­ate im­age.

The first fea­ture from di­rec­tor Amanda Lipitz, best known as a Tony-win­ning Broad­way pro­ducer, “Step” is nom­i­nally about the roller­coaster se­nior year of mem­bers of a char­ter school step team, but that is a bit like say­ing the clas­sic “Hoop

Dreams” is a film about bas­ket­ball.

In­stead, “Step” is an ex­am­i­na­tion of the hard-knock lives and ex­pan­sive dreams of the de­ter­mined mem­bers of a squad that calls it­self the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, af­ter their school. We share in their crises and their tri­umphs be­cause they’re re­mark­ably open and can­did with us, be­cause we’ve seen how hard the road has been and how much suc­cess would mean to them.

Ground zero for “Step” is the Bal­ti­more Lead­er­ship School for Young Women, a mid­dle and high school founded in 2009 with the trans­for­ma­tive goal of send­ing ev­ery mem­ber of its se­nior classes to col­lege.

The film be­gins with the found­ing class set to grad­u­ate in June 2016, but “Step” is suc­cess­ful be­cause Lipitz’s con­nec­tion to the place goes back much fur­ther.

A Bal­ti­more na­tive, Lipitz has been in­volved with the school since its in­cep­tion. She was drawn to make a pos­i­tive film about her home­town in part be­cause of the neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity the city re­ceived af­ter the April 2015 death of Fred­die Gray.

Step is a com­pet­i­tive per­for­mance art long pop­u­lar in his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and univer­si­ties fea­tur­ing dy­namic move­ment, call and re­sponse and syn­chro­nized clap­ping that was first widely seen in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”

The Bal­ti­more school’s step group, which was founded with the first class, is coming off a par­tic­u­larly weak year that saw the team lose ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion.

The dy­namic pres­ence of a new in­struc­tor, Gari “Coach G” McIn­tyre, prom­ises to change all that as she fo­cuses on pre­par­ing for the big meet of the year. That would be a tri-state event at Bowie State Univer­sity fea­tur­ing teams from Virginia and Delaware as well as Mary­land.

A com­mit­ted men­tor, McIn­tyre be­lieves what she does “is way big­ger than step. It’s about sacri­fice, not making ex­cuses, a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude. If you can make it though step prac­tice, you can make it through life.”

Film­maker Lipitz fo­cuses not only on the coach but also on three mem­bers of the team — each very dif­fer­ent but all united by the fact that par­tic­i­pa­tion in step helps them cope with com­plex lives, draws them to­gether and makes them whole.

Founder and team cap­tain is the ex­u­ber­ant and charis­matic Blessin Gi­raldo, who, like the group, is coming off a bad year where she missed 53 days of school and “every­thing fell apart.”

Cori Grainger, the school’s aca­dem­i­cally fo­cused vale­dic­to­rian, jokes that she is “every­thing step is not.” She calls her mom, Tri­ana Flem­ming, who was 16 when Cori was born, “a magic wand in hu­man form” and wor­ries both about get­ting into Johns Hop­kins, her dream school, and af­ford­ing it if she does.

Also with a dy­namic par­ent is Tayla Solomon, whose live-wire mother, Maisha, comes to ev­ery prac­tice and is so en­er­getic it’s clear why Tayla says, “I tell her to chill out some­times. She em­bar­rasses me.”

Aside from Coach G, the other school ad­min­is­tra­tor who is a key player here is col­lege coun­selor Paula Do­fat, a com­mit­ted, no-non­sense ad­vo­cate who gives the young women nuts-and­bolts ad­vice about what is within their reach and what is not.

Lipitz’s re­la­tion­ship with the school en­sured lots of ac­cess for cine­matog­ra­pher Casey Re­gan to both the girls and their in­domitable moth­ers, de­ter­mined to come through for their daugh­ters and en­sure that they have bet­ter lives.

“The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of ev­ery hu­man be­ing is we have prob­lems,” Flem­ming ad­vises. “But you don’t stay there, you get up.” Watch­ing how the young women of “Step” do just that is an ex­pe­ri­ence you will want to be part of.

Fox Searchlight

IT’S RE­HEARSAL TIME for Tayla Solomon, left, and other mem­bers of the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, a step team at a Bal­ti­more school.

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