First things first: director Amanda Lipitz's first documentary feature, Step, is about the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school opened in 2009, and initially founded by Brenda Brown Rever. Lipitz is Rever's daughter. Maybe this means nothing at all, and maybe it completely invalidates the film's arguments - I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer to this kind of conflict of interest. But a conflict of interest it nevertheless is, and Step makes not the smallest mention of it. And even more troubling than Lipitz's failure to fully disclose this information is the very small number of film reviewers who have thought to mention this information; and most troubling of all is that, near as I can tell, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club is the only reviewer who has voiced a concern that this might be a problem. And I do have a one-sized-fits-all response to this, which is that it's journalistic malpractice to just wave this on through without comment.

Anyway, Step. Looking at the 2015-'16 school year, it focus its attention not just on the graduating class, but on the school's step team, the Lethal Ladies. And even then, it focuses still deeper, to just three individuals: Blessin Giraldo, who has more or less reigned as the leader of the step team ever since she helped found it, and not with the full faith and endorsement of the team itself; Cori Grainger, the valedictorian, who has the most optimistic college dreams of any of the seniors (though BLSYW has high hopes for 100% of its graduates to move on to college of some sort); and Tayla Solomon, who is the stand-in for all of the girls whose lives aren't as dramatically salient as Blessin and Cori's. Together, they form a reasonably effective cross-section of the kinds of students who attend BLSYW, enough so that the film's curtailed focus doesn't feel like too much of a problem.

Ignore the title: Step isn't about stepping; it isn't even really about how being on the step team helped Blessin, Cori, and Tayla deal with their problems in life. It's only one factor in a complicated network of issues working for and against the young women, the most important of which is obviously that they're African-American teenagers from a less-than-wealthy part of one of Baltimore, one of the cities in the United States most famous for the intensity of its racial divides. And this is something that Step makes note of, though it doesn't really dig into it very much; at 84 minutes, it doesn't really dig into anything very much. And this is a certain frustration I felt with the movie, all throughout: it's the kind of very well-intentioned message movie that is a bit more eager to get credit for having political opinions than for actually doing things with those opinions, or for possessing a more complicated understanding of how human society works than any given college freshman.

Things go much better for the film when it focuses on its three chosen subjects as individuals (which is what it does most of the time), particularly Blessin, who has enough complicated stuff happening in her life that she could be the subject of a documentary entirely unto herself. After years of dominating the Lethal Ladies, poor academic performance got her kicked off the team the year before the film picks up; the same academic performance makes her the biggest threat to the film's hoped-for 100% college placement rate. And so, much of the film follows her attempts to sincerely adopt the contrition and seriousness necessary to get her academic career back on track, all while dealing with a host of family issues. Cori and Tayla have their own personal stories, and their own familial situations; part of what makes Step work is its ability to clearly depict what makes each of these situations distinct (e.g. parental support vs. its lack vs. a kind of overweening control masking itself as support) while also speaking about the things unifying the three women's lives, mostly do with with the twinned difficulties of being black and female.

And, again, the film wants more credit for being able to articulate "black and female" than for seriously engaging with that; one gets the impression that even the high school seniors have a more sophisticated understanding of politics than Step does, which sagely notes that, for example, the Lethal Ladies' first routine of the year is based on Black Lives Matter, while then remaining interested at an entirely surface level as to what that might mean. It's too invested in being a feel-good movie to also work as a message movie, since any plausible message would not be well-suited to making us feel good.

That being said, if feel-good documentaries are your thing, Step is a good one: the simple narrative arc of senior year, as the team heads to an all-city competition that it is initially un-equipped to succeed at, is one that leaves plenty of space for showing individual and collective acts of growth and triumph. It never foregrounds the step team's actual performances enough for this to come off as a sports movie: in fact, I don't believe we even see a performance in full, and until the final stretch of the film, we never see anything more fully fleshed out than a rehearsal. It would be unfair to hold this against the film, since it's not about step performances, but is instead about surviving and thriving in a hostile world; this doesn't mind you, entirely prevent me from holding it against the film.

I can easily provide a laundry-list of complaints about things the film doesn't do perfectly: besides its rather hands-off discussion of American racism, it also has virtually nothing to note about American sexism besides the fact that it exists. And while obviously this was never going to be any kind of examination of the successes and limitations of the charter school model, it's a conspicuous omission. Still, these are all second-order problems: the first-order story is about Blessin, Cori, and Tayla, and how they deal with the problems of being high school seniors, and how at the end, their lives have been improved by both BLSYW and the Lethal Ladies. It is a film whose uplifting conclusions are tailor-made to make a viewer leave feeling that the world is a better place than when we started, and all in a nice bite-sized package. It would take a chilly soul indeed to remain unmoved by this film, and I say that as quite a chilly viewer myself.