Friday, August 18, 2017

Step: Moves to a terrific beat

Step (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.18.17

Far too many years have passed, since we’ve been enchanted by feel-good performing arts documentaries such as Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) and Young@Heart (2007).

We also need reminding — particularly these days — of the value, power and rewards to be experienced, when people work hard toward a common goal.

All eyes are on their (unseen) coach, as she demonstrates a routine for the performance
piece being rehearsed by members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young
Women's step class; the participants include Tayla (standing, foreground) and Cori
(also standing, center left)
All of which makes Step a welcome addition to the big-screen documentary family. Director Amanda Lipitz’s film is both celebratory and at times painfully intimate: a raw, mostly unvarnished window into the lives of inner-city families that barely tread water, while attempting — often with limited success — to do better by their children.

The setting is the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), the city’s first all-female public charter, which opened in 2009 with enough space for just 120 students. The school boasts a motto — “Transforming Baltimore one young woman at a time” — that is just as ambitious as its goal: to graduate 100 percent of its high school senior class, and send all of them to college.

This film depicts events taking place during the 2015-16 academic year, as BLSYW prepares to graduate the 60 members of its entering class who’ve become high school seniors. Lipitz, one of the numerous volunteers who helped found the school, actually began shooting footage in 2009; that’s when she discovered that a subset of sixth-graders had formed a step team, soon to be known as the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore.

Lipitz, already a veteran documentarian, knew that she’d found her narrative hook.

After a bit of vintage footage introduces the youthful step team, and briefly explains the school’s purpose and origin, Lipitz brings us to the beginning of the girls’ senior year. They’re introduced to a demanding new step mentor, Coach G (Gari McIntyre), who bluntly insists that everybody needs to do much, much better, in the wake of a disappointing junior year that saw many of the girls slacking off.

Team leader Blessin Giraldo all but abandoned her post that year, cutting school frequently enough to jeopardize her academic standing.

Blessin is one of three students profiled extensively, along with their families, during the course of this film. She’s a tough cookie with a chip on her shoulder: a talented step performer who nonetheless feels “stuck” at school and at home. She makes repeated promises to do better, but her subsequent behavior belies such claims. She’s not dumb; she tearfully recognizes the consequences of sloppy effort, particularly during frequent meetings with tenacious BLSYW college counselor Paula Dofat (who deserves sainthood for patience and understanding, and is by far this film’s most engaging adult).

But when push comes to shove, Blessin is too easily distracted, and too prone to impulsive behavior. She comes by it honestly; her single mother, remarkably candid on camera, laments the degree to which her daughter takes after her. Blessin is fortunate to have several other adult relatives at close quarters — all women — but we worry that she’ll nonetheless fall through the cracks.

That seems a less likely fate for Tayla, the only child of her single mother, Maisha Graves, a correctional officer whose constant presence during step workout sessions has made her a combination of den mother and cheerleading mascot. Maisha may be more determined than Coach G, to get this year’s team to Bowie State, Baltimore’s most competitive high school step competition.

The woman’s dedication is impressive: Maisha works a full graveyard shift, and then rushes directly to school every day, to be present during step practice.

Tayla has no shortage of self-confidence and deadpan wit, insisting early on that her step skills put her “just a notch down from Beyoncé.” She exudes occasional flashes of superiority that suggest a potential conflict with Blessin’s position as team leader, but Tayla is defined mostly by the strength of her mother-daughter bond.

More than once, the poor girl rolls her eyes over Maisha’s boisterous, indefatigable enthusiasm ... but there’s no question of the love they share.

Cori Grainger, finally, is the girl who wins our hearts and minds. She’s the shy one: an introvert and self-described “bookworm kid” who has excelled academically, even while living in a chaotic blended family with six children. Unlike Blessin and Tayla, who often conceal their feelings on camera, Cori is guilelessly direct; what we see is always what she is.

Money is tight in her family: tighter still after her stepfather loses his job. Lipitz’s camera catches Cori at one moment, sitting on the porch outside her home, as she explains that the power has been shut off again ... and then, unexpectedly, she breaks down in shame, frustration and embarrassment. It’s a raw, powerful moment: painfully memorable in a film laden with such intimacies.

Cori’s presence on the step team is something of a surprise, given that such public performance must be far outside her comfort zone. But we can see that this quiet class valedictorian blossoms while learning and presenting the routines.

In between workout sessions, she speaks excitedly about college plans. Dofat agrees that Cori’s grades are good enough to attract the attention of her No. 1 choice, Johns Hopkins University ... but tuition at that dream school is an inconceivable $50,000 per year.

One more individual’s presence is felt throughout this film: 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose death from wounds sustained while in police custody, took place late during the girls’ junior year. Coach G uses this tragic event as an opportunity to channel grief, rage and terror into a performance tribute to Gray: a yearlong spiritual journey that begins with a field trip to the street memorial — a huge painting on the side of a building — that honors the young man’s memory.

It’s hard not to get choked up, when the girls silently place flowers at the base of this mural.

That said, Lipitz’s film subsequently walks a fine line between advocacy, celebration and empowerment ... and raw fury. The carefully crafted step routine, developed by Coach G and fine-tuned by the girls themselves, occasionally slides in the direction of jack-booted militarism: certainly understandable, but perhaps uncomfortably angry.

I’d hate to think some viewers would find the routine intimidating or threatening, as opposed to its intent as a raging cry in the inner-city wilderness: for respect not only as black Americans, but as disenfranchised young women who wish their voices to be heard, and their potential to be valued.

The film doesn’t dwell on such issues, focusing instead on the girls themselves, and their place in the evolving competition. The Lethal Ladies of Baltimore do well enough during prelims to earn a spot at Bowie State, at which point Lipitz has us: We’re not merely involved in the step competition, because we’re just as emotionally invested in the girls’ fates as college applications roll out ... and they await the results.

By which point, we’ve also grown to know these three girls and their families: always the first “step” toward inclusion and bonding. That’s pretty cool, for a little film that runs an economical 83 minutes. I’ve no idea how lofty Lipitz’s goals may have been, when she started back in 2009, but she clearly accomplished a lot.

No comments:

Post a Comment