Wunderkind Producer Records Girls’ ‘Step’ to College

Director Amanda Lipitz shares a moment with “Step” performer Cori Grainger. (Provided)

Most Jewish children these days are taught the principle of healing the world. Amanda Lipitz was inculcated at a young age at the dining-room table.

“My mom started a domestic violence program in Baltimore for Jewish women because she knew that they weren’t going to the safe house because it wasn’t kosher,” the New York-based theater producer and documentary filmmaker recalled during a recent visit to San Francisco. “I remember the hotlines being run out of our home.”

The program, CHANA, was and remains under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and the phones were eventually set up elsewhere. By that time, Lipitz had a visceral, ingrained understanding of tikkun olam.

That commitment hasn’t wavered in the ensuing three decades, and it animates Lipitz’s inspirational documentary “Step.” The coming-of-age film follows to graduation the founding class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a grade six-to-12 public institution created to prepare and send girls from underprivileged neighborhoods to college.

“Step,” which debuted at Sundance, is playing at the Charles Theatre.

A fast-paced, character-based piece that grips the viewer with the students’ real-life stakes and domestic dramas, “Step” takes its name — and derives plenty of entertainment value and a chunk of its rooting interest — from the rousing routines of the choreographed step-dance team that the initial class formed in sixth grade.

The team’s primary goal is to outdo other schools at the year-end competition. But the real meaning of “team” emerges when their brassy leader, Blessin Giraldo, runs into trouble in the 11th grade.

Blessin Giraldo, front row in white shirt, plays a pivotal role in the team’s success. (Provided)

“Blessin missed 53 days of school and got kicked off the team,” Lipitz recalled, “and it was so amazing to watch the sisterhood and the way they all pulled her back in. This film, for me, is about women, and women coming together.”

That includes the teachers, counselors and step coach, who are unshakeable in their mission to propel kids to college. In practically every case, the student would be the first in her family to achieve that milestone.

That wasn’t the case for Lipitz, needless to say. She was training to be an actress at Tisch School of the Arts when her dissatisfaction with auditioning coincided with the realization that she wasn’t as talented as a lot of the people she was up against. By the time the Baltimore native graduated, she’d settled on a career as a theater producer.

A veritable prodigy, she made her Broadway producing debut at just 24 with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Lipitz went on to open “Legally Blonde The Musical,” “Modern Orthodox” (starring Jason Biggs and Molly Ringwald), “The Performers” (with Henry Winkler and Alicia Silverstone) and Tony Award-winners “A View From the Bridge” and “The Humans.”

“I produced a lot of Broadway shows, but I always had this need to do tikkun olam in my life,” Lipitz said. “I didn’t feel that my life in the entertainment world was complete if I didn’t find a way to figure out how to marry those two things. So I started working to raise money around scholarships for education for kids.”

Lipitz had made a short film when she was at Tisch, which gave her entrée to produce a fundraising piece for the New York public all-girls’ schools founded by the Young Women’s Leadership Network. She’s produced more than 30 such films for nonprofit organizations, valuable experience when the idea of “Step” presented itself.

Lipitz was talking with her mother, career activist Brenda Brown Rever, about ways to improve the lives of girls in Baltimore. Lipitz suggested she check out the YWLN schools in New York, and Rever was so inspired she signed on as a co-founder of BLSYW and chair of the board.

“My mom was the force behind the start of this school,” Lipitz said. “This film is so much about mothers and daughters and who your mother is in this life, and that extends off camera to my relationship with my mom.”

Lipitz had a 6-month-old baby when BLSYW opened and she met the initial class of 11-year-old sixth-graders. The students know Lipitz’s children, now 8 and 3, from infancy.

“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Which girls are you talking about? Your girls or your other girls?’” Lipitz said with a laugh.

“I was going to be a part of these girls’ lives and a part of the step team whether it became a movie or not,” she explained. “I just loved them and wanted to be a mentor to them, and I was inspired by them.”

As bonded as she and the students are, Lipitz is acutely aware of how their life experiences diverge.

“The difference between us was not a black or white difference or a Jewish-Christian difference,” she said. “There’s so much faith and gospel and church and praying in this movie, and I think prayer is prayer. The biggest difference was a socioeconomic difference, the fact that they couldn’t order a pizza and I could.”

So Lipitz established some rules early on, before she knew every single thing going on in the girls’ houses. “They were minors, they were in high school, they were in my care, and if they were in my care, they were fed, they were transported, and they were safe,” Lipitz said. “I stuck to those rules all [through] filming, and it was expensive, but it served everyone well.”

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.

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