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As a basic document of the challenges that Blessin and her fellow students Cori and Tayla face in their last year of high school, Step is effective enough to get the viewer engaged with their personalities and goals. As a dramatic or emotionally engaging documentary, the movie feels more scattered, with director Amanda Lipitz hanging onto the natural structure of the school year and a looming "big competition" as a foundation that leaves unexplored details behind in every scene as the film cruises toward a frustratingly quick 84-minute finish.
For one thing, Lipitz singles out three students, but only spends a significant amount of time with two of them. We learn plenty about Blessin, a smart student facing an intense personal struggle with self-worth and lashing out, traits that she seems to have inherited from her mother, Geneva, who speaks about her own struggles with emotional and mental health. Blessin missed over 60 days in the previous school year, which ruined her GPA right as the college application process begins, and her absence hurt the Step team in competition. We also learn plenty about Cori, an extremely bright young woman who dreams of going to Johns Hopkins University. Her mother gave birth to her at 16 but has successfully provided and fought for Cori to have whatever she needs, and now all she's hoping for is a full-ride scholarship, especially now that her stepfather has lost his job. On the other hand, there's Tayla, a third student, who feels positioned as a third pillar of the documentary despite Lipitz's lack of serious interaction with her. We learn more about Tayla's mother Maisha, who comes to every Step practice and knows all the dance moves. Aside from an unexplained drop in Tayla's grades (we see Maisha confront her, but never hear from Tayla about her POV), she has no real story in the film.
The film contains a frustrating number of side stories that essentially go unexplored. There is a scene at what appears to be a birthday party for Tayla, during a section of the film when Blessin is fighting with the other girls. Maisha chides Tayla for ostracizing her teammate, but Lipitz never asks Tayla or Cori how they feel about Blessin, leaving an unresolved beef hanging in the air. Another loose end is Maisha's job as a police officer -- how does she reconcile her job with the Black Lives Matter protest that the Step coach, Coach G, cooks up for a mid-film recital? Lipitz opens her film with documentary footage of riots and protests, amid news reports of the death of Freddie Gray, but the film's insight into race, poverty, and class all feels incidental (present and included but not necessarily elaborated or focused on).
None of this is to say that Step isn't enjoyable, but more that what the audience will invest in is the young women the film focuses on. There is an emotional scene of Blessin, defiant through tears, talking about her future, and it's this kind of thing -- sincerity, passion, enthusiasm -- that shines. It's only a shame that it feels like Lipitz's ability to mold these stories into a film that elevates them and gets us closer to them is not as impressive as her subjects.
Step gets some simple art that depicts its three core subjects. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (the kind with holes in the plastic), and there is an insert inside the case with an UltraViolet Digital HD code -- there is no US Blu-ray release of Step, but you get a high-def copy with the DVD.
The Video and Audio
Step gets a solid DVD presentation, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen (despite the packaging claiming 1.85:1) and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. There is not much to say, other than the fact that the picture seems pleasantly sharp and detailed, with no issues with aliasing or banding. Some of the footage features white crush but this is obviously part of the source footage. Sound is often affected by the acoustics in which it was recorded, with the exception of source soundtrack. A 5.1 English Descriptive Audio track is also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles. Impressively, Fox Searchlight has also taken an extra step and subtitled the audio commentary in both languages as well.
A handful of extras are included. First, there is a audio commentary with director Amanda Lipitz. Throughout, she expands on the experiences behind various moments in the film, working with her subjects, missed opportunities, and what she hoped to communicate with the inclusion of certain material. There are a number of long pauses between elements that inspire Lipitz to comment.
Four deleted scenes (9:18), with optional commentary by Lipitz, kick off the video extras, and each one of them is a winner. There's a scene where Cori and her father (who does not appear in the finished film) walk around John Hopkins and he talks about his pride in her achievements, a two-part sequence of Coach G and her work situation, a truly celebratory sequence where every member of the BLSYW class of 2016 announces where they're going to college, and a fun clip of the girls getting their prom dresses. Why any of these failed to make the finished film is perplexing.
Next, there are a handful of featurettes: "Step is Life" (1:30), the three short "The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW" - Blessin (1:00), Cori (1:00), and Tayla (0:53), and "Inside the Rehearsal Room" (1:31). These are glossy but generally good (and too short to really be a waste of time). The explanation of step itself from the first featurette kind of feels like it should be in the film itself. Finally, there's a Lethal Ladies music video (3:29), in which the girls dance to Rachel Platten's "Fight Song." The disc rounds out with a photo gallery.
Trailers for Hidden Figures, He Named Me Malala, and Gifted play before the main menu. No trailer for Step is included.
Step is a decent documentary about great subjects. The disc has some good content and looks nice, plus the HD version is a pretty big bonus. Overall, recommended.
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