Directed By: Amanda Lipitz
Running Time: 83 minutes
A 100% percent high school graduation rate isn’t unheard of. However the average graduation rate, depending on your state, hovers anywhere from 66% to 94%, according to U.S. News and World Report. In Maryland though, out of 204 schools, there isn’t a 100% graduation rate at any high school. But you have to dig a little deeper to find the one that accomplished it back in 2016, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
The predominantly African-American middle-high public charter school was an experiment created in 2009. The hope was to help transform the young women in the urban core through strong education and empowerment. “Step” catches up with the first class ever to attend that school, as they get ready to graduate and look to get into college. Specifically we watch three women on the high-school step dance team.
That’s not to take away from the most fascinating part of this film, the public education experiment, which surely isn’t the only one in the country. When the cameras go home with the girls and we see a broken home life, impoverished circumstances, and single moms. We fully grasp that this is a city, at every multi-generational level, working to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Even behind closed doors at the school, where educators are reaming students over bad grades, we see this disheartening concern in their eyes that their students may not make it and they may never make anything of themselves.
In that regard, “Step” is a wonderfully engaging documentary about perseverance against insurmountable odds. The film’s backdrop is the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore riots which were broadcast for the world to see, and inner city decay. To see these teenage girls being forced to grow up in such harsh conditions and to strive for positivity in the face of hopelessness is one of the most inspiring things an American documentary has shown in years.
There is a little bit of choppiness in the film’s narrative, mainly because the film’s speed is hit on fast forward. It buzzes through people, faces and places in a dizzying whirlwind, instead of taking a breath here and there for reflection. But it also helps prevent the film from becoming too melodramatic and repetitive when detailing the young women’s lives and circumstances.
While the step dance team is certainly the least interesting part of this film, it does play an integral role of playing by subliminally layering in sports movie tropes about self-esteem and tenacity. It makes many of the film’s moments, like one girl getting a full ride scholarship to college and another girl making a last minute to even be considered for acceptance, that much more impactful. “Step” is an encouraging dose of reality that America’s future will be in capable hands.