By: Matt Brunson
The new documentary Step (three out of five stars) focuses on the members of an inner-city Baltimore high school step team, but what’s most surprising about the film is how comparatively little time is spent on the dancing. To be sure, there are numerous sequences in which we watch the girls practice, and of course there’s a big dance competition at the end. But the majority of the picture examines the lives of these young women away from the hoofing, centering instead on their family lives and their efforts to graduate and be accepted into college. It’s not unreasonable, then, to assume that the title doesn’t refer to their chosen form of dancing as much as it refers to the steps each girl must take if she wants to break free from her surroundings and escape into the world at large.
The picture primarily focuses on Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, three seniors at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Cori is the brainy one (she’s hoping to get into Johns Hopkins on a full scholarship) while Tayla is the sardonic one (she’s constantly rolling her eyes at her mom, a corrections officer with as much boundless energy as any of these girls). As for Blessin, she’s the founder of the step team as well as the center of the movie. Bright and beautiful, she lives for dance but has trouble applying herself in other areas. With plummeting grades and a mother who doesn’t always come through for her, she’s the one most in peril of not moving forward, and the later scenes in which she realizes she may get left behind as her peers are receiving their college acceptance letters pack an emotional wallop.
More straightforward than many other documentaries about kids in competition, Step isn’t as richly detailed or narratively mutable as something like Hoop Dreams or Spellbound. But by focusing on the hopes and aspirations of three distinct individuals — and by raising the stakes via opening the film with the 2015 police-sanctioned-and-court-approved slaying of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray — the movie posits that, while artistic expression may be a way of life, the environment in which it’s often practiced may be more subject to matters of life and death.