Not for nothing did "Step" win a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance. Heartening and unashamedly emotional, it's a certified crowd pleaser that doesn't care who knows it.
Combining performance and feeling in a way that recalls the Oscar-winning "20 Feet From Stardom," "Step" is a documentary that feels like it is waiting to happen, just crying out to be made. Which is, given how many tears are shed on-screen and likely to be matched by the audience, an especially appropriate image.
The first feature from director Amanda Lipitz, best known as a Tony-winning Broadway producer, "Step" is nominally about the roller-coaster senior year of members of a charter school step team, but that is a bit like saying the classic "Hoop Dreams" is a film about basketball.
Instead, "Step" is an examination of the hard-knock lives and expansive dreams of the determined members of a squad that calls itself the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, after their school. We share in their crises and their triumphs because they're remarkably open and candid with us, because we've seen how hard the road has been and how much success would mean to them.
Ground zero for "Step" is the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a middle and high school founded in 2009 with the transformative goal of sending every member of its senior classes to college.
The film begins with the founding class set to graduate in June 2016, but "Step" is successful because Lipitz's connection to the place goes back much further.
A Baltimore native, Lipitz has been involved with the school since its inception. She was drawn to make a positive film about her hometown in part because of all the negative publicity the city received after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
Step is a competitive performance art long popular in historically black colleges and universities featuring dynamic movement, call and response and synchronized clapping that was first widely seen in Spike Lee's "School Daze."
The Baltimore school's step group, which was founded with the first class, is coming off a particularly weak year that saw the team lose every competition.
The dynamic presence of a new instructor, Gari "Coach G" McIntyre, promises to change all that as she focuses on preparing for the big meet of the year. That would be a tri-state event at Bowie State University featuring teams from Virginia and Delaware as well as Maryland.
A committed mentor, McIntyre believes what she does "is way bigger than step. It's about sacrifice, not making excuses, a positive attitude. If you can make it though step practice, you can make it through life."
Filmmaker Lipitz focuses not only on the coach but also on three members of the team — each very different, but all united by the fact that participation in step helps them cope with complex lives, draws them together and makes them whole.
Founder and team captain is the exuberant and charismatic Blessin Giraldo, who, like the group, is coming off a bad year where she missed 53 days of school and "everything fell apart."
Cori Grainger, the school's academically focused valedictorian, jokes that she is "everything step is not." She calls her mom, Triana Flemming, who was 16 when Cori was born, "a magic wand in human form" and worries both about getting into Johns Hopkins, her dream school, and affording it if she does.
Also with a dynamic parent is Tayla Solomon, whose live-wire mother, Maisha, comes to every practice and is so energetic it's clear why Tayla says, "I tell her to chill out sometimes. She embarrasses me."
Aside from Coach G, the other school administrator who is a key player here is college counselor Paula Dofat, a committed, no-nonsense advocate who gives the young women nuts-and-bolts advice about what is within their reach and what is not.
Lipitz's relationship with the school ensured lots of access for cinematographer Casey Regan to both the girls and their indomitable mothers, determined to come through for their daughters and ensure that they have better lives.
"The common denominator of every human being is we have problems," Flemming advises. "But you don't stay there, you get up." Watching how the young women of "Step" do just that is an experience you will want to be part of.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: In limited release