Flashy doc also a timely look at Bal­ti­more teens

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Ge­off Berk­shire

Doc­u­men­taries aren’t of­ten dis­cussed in terms of their abil­ity to en­ter­tain, but “Step” might be the most in­fec­tiously en­ter­tain­ing doc since Chris Rock’s “Good Hair.” This ebul­lient chron­i­cle of a Bal­ti­more girls step team’s se­nior year matches a fas­ci­nat­ing, wor­thy sub­ject with un­abashedly joy­ful film­mak­ing. It’s a crowd­pleas­ing win­ner from Broadway pro­ducer and first-time fea­ture di­rec­tor Amanda Lipitz that has what it takes to ap­peal across gen­er­a­tions and emerge as one of the year’s prime doc­u­men­tary at­trac­tions.

At a breezy 83 min­utes, “Step” isn’t go­ing for a deep dive into ev­ery as­pect of its sub­jects’ lives, but it weaves mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tive strands to­gether in a flashy pack­age that opens a very spe­cific win­dow into life in 2016 Amer­ica. Given where we’re at, it’s not an over­state­ment to say what’s re­vealed is es­sen­tial view­ing.

Lipitz focuses on three team par­tic­i­pants in par­tic­u­lar: cap­tain Blessin Gi­raldo, a prodigy who shines dur­ing per­for­mances but strug­gles both at school and at home; Cori Grainger, an ace stu­dent hop­ing for a schol­ar­ship to the school of her dreams; and Tayla Solomon, a straight-talker whose vi­va­cious single mom acts as the team’s un­of­fi­cial den mother.

Along with the rest of the step team’s se­niors, they’re on a mis­sion to ac­com­plish two sig­nif­i­cant goals in their fi­nal year at the Bal­ti­more Lead­er­ship School for Young Women: get ac­cepted into col­lege, in keep­ing with the school’s mis­sion of send­ing ev­ery grad­u­ate on to MPAA rating: PG Run­ning time: 1:23 higher ed­u­ca­tion, and win the Bowie State step com­pe­ti­tion, which draws schools from Mary­land, Vir­ginia and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

What Lipitz didn’t know when she ini­tially em­barked on the project (and, full dis­clo­sure, she and her mother, Brenda Brown Rever, were in­volved in the char­ter school’s found­ing in 2009) was that film­ing would be­gin in earnest af­ter Bal­ti­more res­i­dent Fred­die Gray died while in po­lice cus­tody, lead­ing to protests and ri­ots. With­out be­com­ing ex­pressly po­lit­i­cal, “Step” stands as a firm re­but­tal to ram­pant mis­un­der­stand­ings about both the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and life in poor ur­ban ar­eas. It’s all seam­lessly a part of the time Lipitz has cap­tured.

These girls are each look­ing for their own way out of tough cir­cum­stances, but their fam­ily and so­cial sit­u­a­tions are no­tably di­verse. Blessin has the rough­est road liv­ing with a mother, Geneva, who suf­fers from de­pres­sion and anger is­sues. Cori’s mother, Tri­ana, re­cently mar­ried a long­time boyfriend, and the cou­ple do every­thing they can to pro­vide for their blended fam­ily. And Tayla is per­pet­u­ally em­bar­rassed by her he­li­copter mother, Maisha, a proud cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer.

With­out any fuss, Lipitz has made a film deeply rooted in in­ter­gen­er­a­tional re­la­tion­ships be­tween women, which ex­tends to the team’s no-non­sense coach Gari McIn­tyre (a new­comer to the school who in­tro­duces her­self by say­ing she lives on the street where Gray died) and de­voted col­lege coun­selor Paula Do­fat.

And then there are the step rou­tines. We’re treated to glimpses of ev­ery stage in the process, from re­hearsals to com­pe­ti­tion. As Blessin notes early on, “We make mu­sic with our bod­ies. That’s some sick stuff.”

“Step” is so much fun, it could cause some purists to gripe at the glossy touches, but that’s where the film may ul­ti­mately prove most pow­er­ful. By of­fer­ing some of so­ci­ety’s most marginal­ized mem­bers — young black women — their time in the spot­light with­out con­de­scen­sion or ex­ploita­tion, Lipitz is break­ing down bar­ri­ers in non­fic­tion cin­ema.

FOX SEARCHLIGHT PIC­TURES

The doc­u­men­tary focuses on Tayla Solomon and other se­niors on a Bal­ti­more school’s step team.

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