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Step is many films wrapped into one: a sports movie, a documentary, a coming of age story, and an examination of race in America. Thankfully the skills behind the camera and in the editing room manage to take these elements and expertly turn them all into one flowing narrative. Amanda Lipitz, the director behind the film, is a Baltimore native, and her quest to show a different side of the city, by sharing the story of a group of teenage girls, succeeds admirably.

The film is based in Baltimore and focuses on three members of the step team for the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Blessin Giraldo, Cori Granger and Tayla Solomon lead very different lives and we see glimpses of their stories as the film moves through their senior year of high school and their last chance at winning a prestigious step competition. The film follows the girls as they try to maintain their grades, apply to college, and just be teenagers. We learn about their struggles and hopes in candid interviews with them and their families. The girls find support in their step coach, Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, and Paula Dofat, the school’s Director of College Counseling. These women play major roles in supporting them through their personal and academic struggles and the difficulty of navigating the financial maze of college applications.

Step never flinches away from showing the reality of the girls’ world. They lead challenging lives, some affected by extreme poverty or difficult families. All of them are dealing with being young black women in America, and particularly Baltimore, where there have been several high-profile instances of police officers killing young black men. While only a small part of the film discusses those events directly, it resonates in many scenes. The film ranges between shots of amazing step dances, protests in the streets, and the girls’ everyday lives while still feeling cohesive. Lipitz maintains a subtlety to her choice of scenes; there is no overt drama or swelling music to inflate the emotions at work onscreen. The girls are honest and open about their struggles and hopes and dreams and that is all that is needed to move the viewer.

As a first documentary outing, Amanda Lipitz’s Step is impressive. By viewing the lives of Blessin, Cori and Tayla through the lens of being members of the step team, we see how one commitment can affect a person’s life in so many ways. It manages to be wide ranging in its examination of its subjects and yet maintain a narrow focus on the team’s journey to the competition. The three girls at the heart of the film are intelligent and dedicated to succeeding at their dreams but are still human, and their lives are always portrayed with compassion. Step is an incredibly relevant example of how hard and rewarding it can be to succeed at life when there is every challenge to block your path.