Step, the African-American competitive art that is the subject of Amanda Lipitz’s taut, intimate, passionate, and celebratory documentary of the same title, is not to be confused with its Irish namesake in “Riverdance.”
As performed by the “Lethal Ladies” of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women at the beginning of the film, step combines dance, costumes, rhyme, and music. Dressed in fatigues and combat boots, these young women stomp with startling aggressiveness, chanting defiant lyrics backed by rapid-fire percussion.
The impact is thrilling — and politically challenging. Intercut with the performances are news clips of the April 2015 demonstrations and violence following the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in the custody of the Baltimore police, events that occurred during the girls’ junior year. The military precision, acrobatic choreography, and compulsive rhythm of the routine is almost as impressive as the spirit of solidarity, political awareness, and activism.
Politics, though, is only part of what is being explored in “Step.” Like “Hoop Dreams” (1994), it tells the stories of young people from tough neighborhoods with a talent that might help them better their lives. Like “Spellbound” (2002), it shows school kids from diverse backgrounds preparing for a competition that might transform their lives. But in its self-awareness and its focus on its subjects’ teamwork, sisterhood, and personal triumph, it is its own layered and exhilarating achievement.
Lipitz, who has been a Broadway producer, rightly structures the film like an old-fashioned backstage musical, focusing on the individual stories of three teammates.
Cori is the brainy nerd making strides toward getting a full scholarship at a prestigious university, while excelling at step as well. Tayla is an ardent team member whose equally dedicated single mother attends every practice, sometimes still wearing the uniform from her job as a corrections officer.
But taking center stage in the film as well as in the step routines is Blessin. She is the founder, leader, and star of the team, but also one of its most restless and troubled members. She quarrels with teammates at practice, her grades drop drastically, and she ends up missing several weeks of school.
Her guidance counselor and the step team coach work hard to help her, but perhaps more importantly the team rallies behind her, demonstrating that step transcends mere competition or even political statements. It is a medium for young women to discover themselves, and then unite and prevail.
Directed by Amanda Lipitz. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 83 minutes. PG (thematic elements and some language).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.