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(The 2017 AFI Docs ran June 14-18 in Washington D.C. Lead critic Chris Reed brings us these reviews fresh from the fest.)

Baltimore, 2015. Protests in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. Then, cut in between those shots of marchers, step dancing. Young women stamp their feet in rhythmic choreography. Exuberance replaces anger. The future can hold both despair and hope. These are the twin pillars of STEP, an inspiring new documentary from Amanda Lipitz. It’s her directorial debut, in fact, though you’d never know that from the narrative confidence with which she structures her tale. We’re at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school founded in 2009, as it prepares to graduate its first senior class. Lipitz trains her camera on members of the step team as they simultaneously compete to win at the annual Bowie State step competition and get into college and forge a life beyond high school.

Among the large cast of characters, Lipitz focuses on three main girls: Blessin, the team’s captain, a vibrant performer with, unfortunately, some serious academic issues; Cori, who will probably be valedictorian and dreams of going to Johns Hopkins on a full scholarship; and Tayla, a solid student with a nearly symbiotic relationship with her single mother, Maisha. And then there’s Gari McIntyre, the new coach who wants to win but also wants to see her students succeed, and Paula Dofat, the school’s committed guidance counselor who pours every ounce of her energy into securing a meaningful future for her charges. OK, maybe she saves a little bit of energy for her hair, which seems to change in every scene, making her one of the most dynamically coiffed (and, therefore, cinematic) characters I have seen in a film in a long time. These are our protagonists, and they hold our attention throughout the movie’s brisk 83 minutes.

If STEP has a flaw, it’s a two-parter: 1) it would be nice to have, somewhere, a brief description of the history of step, just for context; and 2) the actual step dancing is not shot in a way that fully does justice to the choreography. This last one is unfortunate, since we do catch glimpses of great dance moves here and there, but never from an angle that serve the raw power of the performance.

Still, STEP is less about, well, step, than it is about hard work and the the importance of a dedicated educational system. If ever one doubts in the difference that good teaching can make, bring out this movie as a lesson in why teachers are vital to our children’s success. Despair and hope, I wrote? Well, that’s how we began, but the trajectory of this movie is all towards the latter. Kudos to Lipitz and her team, and kudos, especially, to Blessin, Cori, Tayla, Gari, Paula and the rest for their incredible journey. May their futures fulfill all the promise that we see in them.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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