All The Right Moves: 'STEP' Film Review
by Will Lindus
You know, it is fairly easy to become discouraged in the wake of the tragedy that recently occurred in Charlottesville, or to become jaded by the daily battery of injustices illuminated through social media networks. It’s a political and social climate that begs desperately for a win, and while this is an unfair lens through which to view STEP, you can’t completely separate a film from the moment in history in which it is released. There’s this obnoxious phrase which appears too often on movie posters, a go-to pull quote from film critics and reviewers which has lost any real semblance of meaning: triumph of the human spirit. And yet, against this depressing and often frightening news cycle, that’s precisely what STEP provides: an underdog story that shows us that it is possible to overcome sometimes impossible odds if faced with tenacity.
STEP follows the lives of a group of high school seniors at the inner-city Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, specifically those who are members of a competitive dance team. They have an upcoming competition, one that they have never successfully placed in, and the film documents the months of practice and preparation leading up to this competition. Of course, these aren’t the only stakes. STEP focuses on three of these senior girls, each of whom is striving to become the first in their families to transition from high school to college.
It is through these girls that the film finds its heart. Blessin is a talented dancer and charismatic young woman who sees dance as her calling. However, she struggles with focus in her classes and is at risk of not being accepted into any collegiate program because of her middling grades. Cori is an academic whiz who is on her way towards snagging the valedictorian spot in her graduating class. Getting accepted into her college of choice may not be a problem, but being able to afford tuition after her step-father suddenly loses his job becomes a mounting source of concern for Cori. Tayla forges a bond with her energetic and quirky mother Maisha, who revels in both helping the dance team perfect their moves and perpetually embarrassing her daughter.
The relationship between these girls, their families, their coaches and their mentors, and their city are all blended effortlessly and naturally, the film making incredible intergenerational comparisons and socio-economic statements without having to explicitly make a grand point. It’s perhaps reductive to say that this film is a modern iteration of HOOP DREAMS, but the comparison is apt. STEP provides a snapshot of the life and struggles and the perseverance of these girls, each with their eyes set on rising above their circumstances, and it is this snapshot that is so very timely amidst, well, everything that is happening in the news right now.
Let’s not forget about the dance. This team has true underdog status, having never done well at their regional competitions, but their new coach (Geri McIntyre) understands the lives these girls live and is able to relate to them in a way that helps encourage their growth while demanding their focus, discipline, and dedication to the team. This pays off in the form of creative and uplifting dance numbers that we see throughout the film, from all angles - from inception, through the hard work and failures that come with practice, and to the glorious payoff of the final performance itself.
Bottom Line: Young black women are one of the more marginalized groups in our society, and director Amanda Lipitz uses STEP to showcase a robust and nuanced look at their lives in a way that never feels cheap or exploitative. This would be noteworthy enough, but the fact that STEP is also incredibly engaging, endearing, and fun make this a film that deserves to be seen. I’ve never described a film this way before, and I imagine I won’t again, but STEP truly is a triumph of the human spirit.
4 out of 5 Bear Paws