High school- a time of academics, exploration, and friendships. Amanda Lipitz, a Baltimore native and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer turned film director, originally intended her documentary “Step” to be used to raise awareness for the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). That was in 2009 after the public charter, all-girls college prep school had just opened. But then the film’s storyline/trajectory was directly impacted by real-life experiences of the students it follows, events in the city of Baltimore, and by racial issues currently facing the United States.

Lipitz’s focus first enlarged when some of the students formed a step team. Tracing its roots back to African-American fraternities and sororities, and even further back to call and response of slavery, step combines elements of drill team synchronized precision with cheers, chants, and dance moves. Calling themselves the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, the girls’ enthusiasm for the activity was infectious. After attending the step team’s practices, Lipitz expanded her project to follow the progress of BLSYW’s original sixth-grade class through their 2016 graduation.

But, her film’s focus would be changed one more time when 2015 events rocked Baltimore. That April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries sustained while in police custody. His death, one in a recent nationwide string of African-American deaths during interactions with police, resulted in riots in Baltimore. After that, Lipitz’s focus ultimately became senior year milestones in the lives of the students she’d been following.

Thus, “Step” examines both the step team and specifically the experiences of three of its senior members- Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon. At BLSYW, the girls are joined on screen by Coach G (Gari McIntyre), a new coach for the step team; the school’s college counselor, Paula Dofat; and, briefly, the school’s principal, Chevonne Hall.

Lipitz also introduces the audience to the girls’ families and details their obstacles and successes. All three young women have been raised by single mothers (Cori’s mother, Triana, is recently married) and have faced economic and emotional challenges. Cori, who strives to be class valedictorian, worries about affording college, a concern that is shared by her newlywed mother who now has six children to consider. Tayla’s mother, Maisha, a corrections officer, is the most hands-on, coming every day after her job to observe the team and offer advice.

Blessin, the step team founder and captain, faces the widest array of challenges. Her GPA is extremely low even though counselor Dofat and principal Hall know she has the potential to do better. Some of this underachievement is due to poor attendance, part of which happened after Gray’s death. And, some may stem from home issues. Blessin’s mother, Geneva, admits to suffering from chronic depression and having had anger issues that sent her to transitional housing for almost two years.

Blessin expresses a conflict within herself regarding confidence and achievement. But, the one area she excels in is step. Step is a release for both Blessin and Cori (Tayla rarely opens up to Lipitz’s camera, except when she’s embarrassed by her mother’s abundant enthusiasm). Step functions as a way for the team members to temporarily set aside the stresses in their lives, expel their frustrations, and work on their hopes.

“Step” deservedly won the Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Audience members will be moved by the experiences of the film’s three seniors. Given the movie’s title, viewers may arrive expecting an in-depth look at the step team’s activities. While their rehearsals and two main competitions do figure into the narrative, Lipitz’s ultimate choice to follow the progress of Blessin, Cori, and Tayla makes her film about step and so much more. It is a look at the pressures common to all teens (academics, dating, life choices, family dynamics), and also specific to lower income Americans, especially those of color (higher education worries, financial strains, academic preparedness). These are young women with pride and potential who also face hurdles, as Coach G reminds them, due to both their gender and race.

“Step’s” release happens to coincide with recent news that the Justice Department will consider challenges to college admissions affirmative action practices. At one point in “Step,” the team experiences internal conflict stemming from a variety of pressures. Tayla’s mom advises her daughter and teammates to show empathy toward their friends. Hopefully that wisdom will reach beyond the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW to the film’s audience as they catch a glimpse of the real life hopes, struggles, and strivings of these American teens.

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