Tayla Solomon, right, in Step (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Has the kids-in-competition documentary trend played itself out already? Within the last year alone, there was Free, a nonfiction film centered on at-risk Oakland teens undertaking a rigorous dance training program. Recently, Swim Team went poolside, following three autistic competitive swimmers. From 2014, the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants took on a team from MIT in a robotics competition in Underwater Dreams. The list of films highlighting underserved teens beating adversity with talent and poise is quite lengthy, so director Amanda Lipitz, a Broadway producer turned filmmaker, faces a challenge to stand out from the crowd.

In many ways, her film is as uplifting and affirmative as its movie kindred, and just as predictable, using the similar template of alternating profiles and climaxing with a competition. However, the location at a Baltimore all-girls college preparatory school serving mostly African-Americans sets the film apart—to a certain extent. The filmmakers provide a thin outline of the lives of three students, without getting too deep, and the young women remain a bit aloof in front of the camera. Yet when the focus shifts, sporadically, to their onscreen adult mentors, the film has a slight leg up.

The camera hovers around these three seniors at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The public charter school only opened in 2009, offering a limited number of spots by lottery. The school’s goal is to have all of its graduates continue on to college. After classes, the three spotlighted teens participate in the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, the school’s step team. (Stepping, for those not in the know, is a muscular, percussive choreography, with rhythmic handclaps, call-and-response, and chants—like a high-energy drill team.) Filmed during the 2015–16 school year, the shooting of Freddie Gray and the resulting unrest looms in the background. (The step team attends an event remembering Gray, and they blend the message of Black Lives Matter into one of their performances.)

The school year culminates in a multi-state competition. The previous year, the team finished abysmally at the meet, so there is a lot of ground to recover—oh, and there are college applications to fill out and graduation, too. Considering how the film is constructed, the filmmakers aim for suspense, though for much of the audience, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Spoiler alert: the film won the Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance.

The founder of the stepping team is also the team’s captain, Blessin Giraldo, the most photogenic subject to be found outside of a show-business biography documentary. The other two profiled are all-around stellar students: Tayla Solomon, who has been raised by a no-nonsense single mom, Maisha, a corrections officer (who loves her job). When Tayla’s grades take a dip after she begins dating a boy, Maisha offers some straight-talking advice: “Boys want poon. Stay away.” Meanwhile, introverted Cori Granger is one of seven siblings in a blended, religious household. Her mom was 16 when she was born, and her post-high school goal is to get accepted into John Hopkins University—on a full scholarship.

Blessin lives with her mom and extended family in a sparsely furnished house where there’s no food for her preschool-age nephew. But the under-filmed sequences centered on her family life only go so far and reveal the film’s blind spot: the cryptic relationship between Blessin and her mom, Geneva, who remains a vague, off-camera presence for the most part. Even the school’s college counselor, Paula Dofat, says that she has yet to meet her.

In her talking-head segment, Geneva tersely recounts an abusive relationship with Blessin’s father. In her limited screen time, a lot of questions are raised, but not touched upon. In the middle of the school year, for example, Blessin’s grades nosedive and she faces the possibility of not graduating, and she’s also reprimanded for threatening a teammate during a step practice. In front of administrators and the camera, Blessin plays it cool, betraying a glimpse of anxiety when her counselor calls her to the carpet. As a viewer, you don’t want to invade her family’s privacy, but at the same, the director opens a door to Blessin’s life, but leaves it ajar.

During a rare moment in which caution is abandoned, Dofat breaks down in front of colleagues and college admissions officers, tearing up and practically pleading with them to accept Blessin into a college, even though the student’s grades are floundering. It’s the most honest moment in the film.

The step team’s coach, Gari McIntyre, also provides a dose of caffeine. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college, and she speaks to her charges plainly, bluntly, and without anger. You believe her when she conveys her belief that the team can do better. Her motivational speeches are as galvanizing as any on TV’s Friday Night Lights. You may come to the film for the teens’ story, but you’ll stay for the grown-ups.

Directed by Amanda Lipitz
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 85 min. Rated PG