REVIEW: Step

11 08 2017

As a part of its acquisition deal out of the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight purchase not only Amanda Lipitz’s documentary “Step” but also the remake rights. It was a smart decision for the studio in many ways – and perhaps ultimately the best one for this inspiring story of #BlackGirlMagic involving several stepping Baltimore teens. That’s not because their journey needs fictionalization to reach a larger audience; rather, “Step” could use the freedom of narrative cinema to unlock the full reservoir of emotion contained within.

In many ways, it appears that Lipitz is putting together the pieces of a narrative already, but she’s hampered by a fidelity to reality. She bends time and chronology (mostly under the radar, given away by small details like college application deadlines or the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation”) to give her documentary a more thematic structure as opposed to a chronological one. Lipitz also ham-handedly creates a foreground/background dynamic, with the character-building training of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women taking place on a larger canvas of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent murder of Freddie Gray.

To watch “Step” is to at once be aware of Lipitz’s grand ambitions and unfortunate limitations. She’s envisioning spectacle but lacks the resources or the know-how to execute it. This becomes most apparent in how she shoots the step dancing competition sequences. They’re clunkily edited and shot from strange angles, yet there’s evolution over time, suggesting that Lipitz has put in the work to improve even during the course of shooting.

It’s also possible that she treats her subjects more as characters than people in the documentary. Moments like Coach Gari McIntyre’s field trip with the team to a memorial for Freddie Gray, well-intentioned though it might be, plays like the kind of inspirational perspective-altering moment in a Disney sports drama. That might not be how it happened, but it’s how the scene plays in the way Lipitz positions it. She renders figures like the school’s college counselor Paula Dofat, an indefatigable advocate who will stop at nothing to get every girl into post-secondary education, into little more than her function. There’s no curiosity about her inner life.

Watching these frustrating almost-narrative elements made me realize how great “Step” could be when put in the hands of a capable filmmaker who understands the pain and pride coursing through the veins of this story. Close your eyes, and you can imagine some slickly imagined step sequences, a more pressing social commentary and cleaner storytelling. There’s almost no way, however, that such a filmmaker can recreate the raw emotion Lipitz captures from her subjects.

Lipitz built a relationship with these girls and knew how long to leave the camera on them during candid interviews. After they proffer some falsely confident optimism, these teenagers break down, exposing the gashes left by carrying the burden of poverty – as well as the expectations that they can surmount their background altogether. I doubt many actors can reproduce anything approximating the fear of a mother worried about sending a daughter off to school and not being nearby to support her, the pain of a child grown accustomed to cyclical comfort and sporadic power outages or the unadulterated joy of seeing the first person in a family learn she’s heading to college. A narrative version of “Step” will likely try to be a movie of its moment. Yet it will probably be sorely lacking in these moments, little glimpses of humanity poking out through the grimmest of circumstances. B

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