DOC­U­MEN­TARY: The in­spir­ing, ex­u­ber­ant “Step” is the feel-good sleeper of the summer»

★★★★ Rated PG. 83 min­utes.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day

The movies have given us lots of rea­sons to feel ex­hil­a­rated this summer, from the pop-fem­i­nist stylings of Gal Gadot in “Won­der Woman” to the goofy ensem­ble kick-in-the-pants that is “Girls Trip.” And now we have “Step,” a soaring, heart-burst­ing por­trait of a group of in­trepid Bal­ti­more high school stu­dents guar­an­teed to bring au­di­ences to their feet — whether out of vi­car­i­ous tri­umph, over­pow­er­ing pure emo­tion, or sim­ply to pay tribute to the su­per­heroines at the core of its in­fec­tiously in­spir­ing story.

When film­maker Amanda Lipitz be­gan fol­low­ing the story, in 2009, her in­ten­tion was to record the first year of the Bal­ti­more Lead­er­ship School for Young Women, an all-fe­male char­ter school Lipitz had helped found. When a sixth-grader named Blessin Gi­raldo started a step danc­ing team, Lipitz — a theater pro­ducer with such shows as “Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels” and “Legally Blonde” to her credit — im­me­di­ately saw the cin­e­matic po­ten­tial.

“Step,” Lipitz’s im­pres­sive fea­ture doc­u­men­tary de­but, fol­lows Blessin and two fel­low stu­dents, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, as high school se­niors, dur­ing a year spent nav­i­gat­ing school­work, col­lege ap­pli­ca­tions, fi­nan­cial aid forms and an up­com­ing step cham­pi­onship at Bowie State that the BLSYW team — called the Lethal Ladies of Bal­ti­more — has yet to win.

We’ve seen this movie be­fore: the scrappy un­der­dogs who over­come ob­sta­cles to win the day in the course of a nail-bit­ing fi­nal game/per­for­mance/show­down. But “Step” takes those fa­mil­iar el­e­ments to new, ur­gently timely places, as these in­trepid young women con­front deeply per­sonal is­sues rooted in the his­tory and present­day anx­i­eties of their home town.

Filmed in 2015, at the depths of heart­break sur­round­ing the death of Fred­die Gray, “Step” doesn’t dwell on the out­side forces con­di­tion­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of its tough but frag­ile young sub­jects, but nei­ther does it ig­nore them. All three young women em­body the kind of grit and self-con­fi­dence that are now be­lieved to be key fac­tors in fu­ture suc­cess. Still, the film man­ages to ques­tion — al­beit tac­itly — the in­dif­fer­ent or even hos­tile so­cial struc­tures that sur­round them as they con­tin­u­ally fight for their own dreams.

Lipitz couldn’t have found more vivid or sym­pa­thetic pro­tag­o­nists for “Step,” in which the shy Tayla con­fi­dently an­nounces that her dance skills are just a notch down from Bey­oncé’s and in which Cori calls her in­de­fati­ga­bly sup­port­ive mother “a magic wand in hu­man form.” Cori, part of a big blended fam­ily of lim­ited means, is the vale­dic­to­rian of her class, with her eye on Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, if she can pull to­gether the $50,000 tu­ition.

Tayla, the daugh­ter of a fe­ro­ciously pro­tec­tive single mother named Maisha, is on a qui­etly re­as­sur­ing track un­til a boyfriend ar­rives on the scene. Blessin, whose mother man­ages men­tal­health cases, is at the most risk, her fall­ing grades prompt­ing more than one come-to-Je­sus meet­ing with BLSYW’s col­lege coun­selor, Paula Do­fat.

Do­fat and step coach Gari McIn­tyre rep­re­sent a car­ing, of­ten funny Greek cho­rus through­out “Step,” which grace­fully bal­ances scenes of some­times fraught home life, tear­ful per­sonal re­flec­tion and tense col­lege-prep meet­ings with ex­u­ber­ant prac­tice ses­sions of the ag­gres­sive, foot-stomp­ing dance style of its ti­tle. No spoil­ers here, but this movie fires on ev­ery cylin­der, in­vest­ing view­ers in per­sonal sto­ries that couldn’t have higher stakes and invit­ing them on a jour­ney that pays off in ways ex­pected and ut­terly sur­pris­ing.

Fox Searchlight

A scene from the doc­u­men­tary “Step.”

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