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What they're saying about 'Step,' the Baltimore dance documentary

The premiere of the documentary "Step,"  a film about the members of the Lethal Ladies step team, from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. (Baltimore Sun video)

"Step," Baltimore native Amanda Lipitz's documentary on three members of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they navigate their senior years and prepare for a prestigious tournament — all played out in the aftermath of Freddie gray's death— arrives in theaters Friday.

Already, former First Lady Michelle Obama has taken note of the movie and the teens' journey. Last month, she tweeted a picture of the step team and wrote, "Couldn't be more excited for these phenomenal women I met at #CollegeSigningDay. Keep up the great work and congrats on @stepthemovie!"

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Here's a look at what some of the nation's movie critics are saying about the film:

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday gives the movie four stars out of four, calling it "a soaring, heart-bursting portrait of a group of intrepid Baltimore high school students guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet."

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"No spoilers here, but this movie fires on every cylinder, investing viewers in personal stories that couldn't have higher stakes and inviting them on a journey that pays off in ways expected and utterly surprising. As indomitable practitioners of precision, discipline, creativity and perseverance, the Lethal Ladies are right on time: We all could use a little "Step" in our lives these days, if only to remind us to keep trudging ahead, with as much swagger as possible."

"Events beyond the world of academics intrude as well. Lipitz just happened to begin filming in Baltimore in 2015, when Freddie Gray died while in police custody. The racially-charged backdrop adds both urgency and a currency to what happens to these girls."

Back in January, when "Step" had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (and won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking), Geoff Berkshire of Variety called it "one of the year's prime doc[umentary] attractions." He praised it for being both entertaining (he called it "ebullient") and for being "a firm rebuttal to rampant misunderstandings about both the Black Lives Matter movement and life in poor urban areas."

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"Call it 'Hoop Dreams' for the social media generation. At a breezy 83 minutes, 'Step' isn't going for a deep dive into every aspect of its subjects' lives, but it weaves multiple narrative strands together in a flashy package that opens a very specific window into life in 2016 America. Given where we're at, it's not an overstatement to say what's revealed is essential viewing."

Following the film's Sundance premiere, the Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney called it "a joyous documentary about a high-stakes graduation year."

"It seems impossible that someone won't snap up the rights to this uplifting success story and refashion it as a narrative teen pic. But that doesn't mean this thoroughly enjoyable nonfiction account shouldn't find a receptive audience eager to share the tears and triumphs of its spirited protagonists and their mentors."

Also out of Sundance, Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune called Lipitz's documentary "one of the biggest crowd-pleasers at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and deservedly so."

"Lipitz captures the mission of BLSYW, and the hard work and dedication of the school's staff as they strive to get every single girl into college — which means, in some cases, being the first in their family to do so. Lipitz also conveys the passion and heart these girls have for performing, and for making their lives better."

Moira Macdonald, writing in the Seattle Times after 'Step' played May's Seattle International Film Festival, called the film a "blink-away-the-tears documentary."

"The film is inspiring and funny and lovely, and you may find the words of one of the girls lingering: 'If you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense.'"

Writing on SFGate.com, Walter Addiego praises the film's ability, much like step itself, to "inspire, inform and entertain."

"It's a lot to cover in 83 minutes, and you might wish for a little more depth in the girls' back stories. Then again, the brisk pace is part of what makes the movie a crowdpleaser — that, and knowing that the real prize the girls are working for is much bigger than a step-dancing trophy."

On IndieWire, Steve Greene writes of "Step" that it "tells a story that highlights the intertwining values of hope and education, and never loses sight of the idea that much more lies ahead." But he feels the film leaves too much of the story "on the cutting room floor."

""The faith of Cori's family and Tayla's mother's job as a correctional officer are presented as grace notes, but seem to hold so much connection to what makes each student who they are, that it's a shame it's not further explored. And though the Lethal Ladies feature a Black Lives Matter theme in one routine, it feels like there's more to that movement's impact on these dancers' lives than the film leaves time to investigate."

Keith Watson of Slant found the film "frustratingly shallow," reducing its subjects to "plucky, up-by-the-bootstraps archetypes."

"Throughout, it's hard to shake the impression that Lipitz is withholding the messy details that might have complicated the film."

"Step" is a "a rollercoaster ride about expectations, drive, and achievement," said Robert Abele of The Wrap, who called the film "inspiring."

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"The competition in "Step" isn't just to hit a stage and win a talent prize, but to beat the odds in life. Start figuring out now how to clap and dab away tears at the same time; it's that kind of experience."

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