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Review

Step

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published August 18, 2017 at 1:45 a.m.

Step

87

Cast: Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon

Director: Amanda Lipitz

Rating: PG, for thematic elements and some language

Running Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Amanda Lipitz's debut feature documentary Step, set in the mean streets of Baltimore, manages the formidable feat of being uplifting without ever shortchanging the audience's intelligence.

It helps that the film is about a group of intelligent teenage girls who have to get by on determination.

Fate does them no favors. All are members of their school's step dancing team, the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, or LLOB, as they call themselves.

When these young women aren't studying to get into schools like Johns Hopkins, they're participating in elaborate step dancing routines.

Step would be worth catching simply to see these women learn their routines and then master them. Lipitz is a Tony-winning Broadway producer, so it's not surprising that she's learned how to shoot and edit these numbers.

What's more impressive is that Lipitz follows three of the girls, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, as each works to get through a challenging environment that could break them before they even get onstage. Knowing what these young women have been through makes the beauty and power of their dances seem even more impressive.

Giraldo has to improve her shaky grades while also dealing with a mother who has battled severe depression and currently has a habit of missing vital conferences with her daughter's teachers. Grainger is shy but easily leads her class in grades. Unfortunately, her supportive mother and stepfather are struggling financially, leaving her to study by candlelight.

Solomon chafes at the way her mother goes out of her way to prevent her from repeating her own mistakes as a teenage mother. The older woman has additional worries because she's proud to be a corrections officer, but she's understandably ambivalent because she's working during the racial tension after Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

Lipitz stares unflinchingly at these difficulties. The girls sometimes cry, but their remarkable lack of bitterness makes it easier to feel admiration instead of sorrow for them. They do have it rough, but a bad day or two isn't going to crush them. They are the Lethal Ladies, after all.

Lipitz also lets the girls tell their own stories, and they reveal that places like Baltimore, even though they can be inhospitable, are far from hellholes. The girls notice how local TV news crews provided more nuanced coverage of the Freddie Gray-related unrest, whereas CNN led viewers to think of Baltimore as a war zone.

While Lipitz doesn't live in Baltimore anymore, she's clearly not a short-timer. She presents her subjects in an occasionally unflattering but never demeaning manner. She knows how to balance their adolescent foibles with a sincere appreciation of what these youngsters have done and will accomplish.

Throughout the film, Lipitz manages to tell an uplifting story without resorting to overt sentimentality. Like the women she follows, she earns just about every bit of joy she presents.

MovieStyle on 08/18/2017

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