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film review

Tayla Solomon is one of three young woman at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Woman that the director of Step focuses on.

Tony-winning producer Amanda Lipitz started filming the documentary Step during the inaugural year of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), an inner-city school with a lofty goal: to have all its young students graduate and gain acceptance into college.

Lipitz, who won the Tony last year for a revival of Arthur Miller's gut-wrenching immigrant drama A View from the Bridge, had never made a full-length feature before. Indeed, when she started filming at BLSYW, it was to make a short feature to drum up support and raise awareness about the fledgling school's lofty mission.

That changed when some of the girls – part of the so-called Lethal Ladies of BLSYW – invited her to watch step practice – a corporeal form of storytelling whose U.S. origins date back to the slave trade, when slaves used footsteps, hand claps and call-and-response songs to communicate with one another and spread vital news.

Lipitz was captivated. Filmed during the final year of the school's first graduating class – with the backdrop of the protests and riots that resulted from the death of Baltimore native Freddie Gray, who died in police custody – the director focuses on three very different young women: the team leader Blessin Giraldo, who oozes charisma but is incredibly insecure; Cori Grainger, a straight-A student from a loving, blended family whose dream is to get a full ride to Johns Hopkins University; and the droll Tayla Solomon, whose helicopter mom is hilariously irrepressible as the step team's unofficial mascot.

The film is a coming-of-age story of black American women, who depend heavily on sisterhood (and motherhood) to survive and thrive. Much of the footage takes place in school gyms – at practices and competitions – but the narrative is equally focused on the home lives of these resilient young women, whose families are predominantly low-income, often without food in the fridge (or a fridge, as one of the girls points out) and hydro.

But it's also a story about teachers and educators whose life work is to uplift and motivate young people to strive to be the best – whether it's "Coach G," herself, a school dropout who ended up with two degrees and a take-no-prisoners approach to dance and life; counsellor Paula Dofat, who humiliates herself by crying when explaining to a college acceptance panel that Giraldo's life likely hinges on acceptance.

Step is not sentimental. It's an upbeat depiction of what life is like for young black women on the fringes of society who are given a shot at grabbing the brass ring. And they take it, with both hands (and their feet).

They don't always get along. They lose focus. They lose heart. But they learn how to function as a team and rely upon each other. The mentors and the mothers are just as important as the dance routines. Step is a story about relationships. And how even the most challenging family ties shape us into the people we are destined to become.