Tayla Solomon and the "Lethal Ladies of BLSYW" in the film "Step." (Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation )
Tayla Solomon and the "Lethal Ladies of BLSYW" in the film "Step." (Photo/Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Ace producer takes another big ‘Step’ for tikkun olam

Most Jewish children these days are taught the principle of tikkun olam, or healing the world. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, when Amanda Lipitz was growing up, she was inculcated 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 37-year-old Broadway producer and documentary filmmaker recalled during a recent visit to San Francisco. “I remember the hotlines being run out of our home.”

The program was run under the auspices of the local Jewish federation, 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 during Lipitz’s professional career, and it animates her inspirational new documentary “Step.” The coming-of-age film follows to graduation the founding class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a grade 6-12 public institution created to prepare and send girls from underprivileged neighborhoods to college.

After making its debut at Sundance and receiving its local premiere at the SFFILM Festival in April, “Step” will open Friday, Aug. 4 at select theaters around the Bay Area.

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 as an 11th-grader.

“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. She was training to be an actress at Tisch School of the Arts in New York City 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.

Director Amanda Lipitz, on left, and Cori Grainger. (Photo/ William Gray © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)
Director Amanda Lipitz, on left, and Cori Grainger. (Photo/ William Gray © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

A veritable prodigy, she made her Broadway producing debut at just 24 with the Steve Martin-Michael Caine hit “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 the 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, 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 have known 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 added. “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 said she 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’ homes.

“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,” she said. “I stuck to those rules all [through] filming and it was expensive, but it served everyone well.”

“Step” opens Friday, Aug. 4 at Century San Francisco Centre; Bay Street 16, Emeryville; California Theatre, Berkeley; Aquarius Theatre, Palo Alto; and Mercado 20, Santa Clara. (Rated PG, 83 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.