Sometimes success should be measured in small increments. That’s what’s on view in this very grass roots documentary about a group of ambitious girls who use their membership in a high school step team as a foundation for learning, inspiration and improving their lives.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) provides a stable, nurturing place for young girls of color who live in a challenging neighborhood. It is a beacon, a refuge and a stabilizing force that guides responsible and college-prepped girls who will take the next step into higher learning. One of the school’s most adept tools, one that pulls students together and helps them become more disciplined, is the step team dubbed the Lethal Ladies.
These sisters know how to stomp, step, cheer, dance and pose. The exhilaration they feel when they are in the depths of stepping promotes a strong self-image, inspires them and makes them feel indomitable. As one of the staff says: “If they can make it through step practice, they can make it through life.”
The two most interesting students are polar opposites: Cori Grainger is a nerdy type who comes from a stable environment and hungers for a full scholarship to John Hopkins University. Anything less will not do, and she has put in the time and effort (straight As) to make her dream come true. At the opposite end of the spectrum is team leader Blessin Girlado, a glamour girl and a drama queen with a loving but troubled mom who rarely comes to see her daughter perform and is nursing her own demons. As a result, Blessin’s drive and ambition runs hot and cold, which are reflected in constant inner (inconsistent self-esteem) and outer (an unsupportive boyfriend) turmoil. Her lackluster grades jeopardize her chances at going to college.
Herding the young ladies toward their freshman college year and a multi-state step competition that has yet to yield BLSYW with a win, are Director of College Counseling Paula Dofat, who never takes “No, I can’t” for an answer and Step Team Coach Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, who could get drunk puppies to stand in line and kick with synchronized precision. The girls are the clay, and these two women are the sculptors.
The technique used by documentarian Amanda Lipitz is pretty standard. Nothing stands out. Nothing hinders. She chronicles interviews, revealing conversations, anecdotes and rehearsals that build up to a do-or-die competition. Cinematographer Casey Regan’s prying lens gives audiences the feeling that they’re flies on a wall and not interlopers. In a tight 83 minutes editor Penelope Falk gives the footage a nice clip. No time for boredom or to take a breath.
What you see is a raw look at low-income urban kids who are learning to rise to the expectations of their mentors and school. The result is a steady determination to succeed that propels them and lends a contagious spirit that rubs off on viewers who sit entranced and hoping that the young women will make their goals and win an elusive competition. You get so involved in their lives you feel like you’re a doting aunt or uncle.
All the girls are a joy to watch, but the up and down momentum that consumes the troubled child Blessin creates the drama that makes this film a nail-biter. You know in your heart that if she doesn’t get into college she could suffer from the same disappointment that has made her mother live with regret.
If you are looking for a step-by-step primer on how to help kids build self-esteem and a driving ambition for higher learning, this inspiring movie is a guidebook.
A small charter school in Baltimore becomes a behemoth in education and inspiration. This is their story.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.