The Fits is a Must-See Debut [Review]

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First films are seldom as assured as The Fits, the debut feature from newcomer Anna Rose Holmer. There’s an unmistakable confidence to the structure, style and tone. Running lean at under ninety minutes, The Fits stars the sensational Royalty Hightower as Toni, an eleven-year-old tomboy who becomes enamored with the competitive dance world known as drill. When we first meet Toni, she has a close bond with her older brother, who she trains with after school to become a boxer. Slowly, she’s beguiled by this newfound pastime, no less daunting physically, but more densely populated by her peers. Toni moves from a ring full of boys to what initially seems like foreign waters to her, the social interactions of young women. But once the other girls in the troupe all begin to experience unexplainable seizures, the “fits” of the title, the film takes on an otherworldly quality.

The most striking thing about The Fits is how distinctly feminine the story is. The film’s producer Lisa Kjerulff and the editor Saela Davis helped Holmer pen the script, combining their voices to create a unique perspective on the coming of age tale. The film follows her through a fascinating awakening, marking her maturation and camaraderie with her new teammates primarily through stirring visuals. So many micro-budgeted indies are laughably vanilla, regurgitated from the same repetitive angsty white male authorial vision. They’re also usually talk-y as fuck. But this is a film light on banter, characterized by evocative images cut together with precision. What little dialogue there is has a naturalistic feel. Threadbare and efficient where other indies tend to be flabby with improvised repartee. Like the best cinematic experiences, it functions just as well with the sound down.

Toni’s journey can be tracked through her place in the film’s prepossessing compositions. When she’s training with her brother, she’s often situated in the center of the frame as our narrative focal point. Her physical performance is arresting and her bodily movements drive the images. As she transitions from boxing to dancing, her feeling of isolation is present visually. Toni’s always off center, displaced from her peers. She struggles with the choreography first, so even when she’s shot in line with the other girls, the graceless motions she performs set her apart. There’s a really interesting way her boxing mannerisms influence the way she adapts to dancing.

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But she develops a real kinship with two of the other newbies and in that closeness Holmer crafts some of the most intimate, memorable moments in the film. Toni and Beezy (Alexis Neblett) form a friendship that powers one of the film’s sweetest sequences. The two girls stay late after school the night before the whole squad is going to be given their new uniforms. They each try the outfits on and run around the empty school, building the kind of comforting memory so many of us have from our youth. It gives Toni something we’ve yet to see her have thus far, right before the phenomenon of the “fits” starts to drive new wedges among the group.

As much as the story focuses on Toni, her quiet, unassuming nature offers a way into a number of background narratives. There’s a very small B-plot around a romance between one of the boys from the boxing club and one of the senior members of Toni’s dance team that unfolds from the eavesdropping we do while following her between these two spaces. A pregnancy scare is heavily implied, and it’s that sexual awakening that seems to incite the first round of incidents. It begins with the older girls before slowly spreading to the newbies. The school faculty is concerned it’s something in the water, but exhaustive tests rule that cause out. Even by the film’s end, we’re never given a definitive explanation, and that’s what makes the film so special.

It would be easy to reduce the collective hysteria to a simple metaphor for the relationship between girlhood and sex. It’s inherent to the way the girls whisper to one another about the fits, asking what it was like. After a time, it becomes difficult to tell if these seizures are really happening to all the girls or if some of them are faking it to fit in. But this is a more complex piece of art, despite its simple premise and straightforward execution. By leaving that underpinning ambiguous, {The Fits} becomes a welcome cypher. Excising any real specificity engenders a deeper sense of universality that allows the film to speak purely on something otherwise untranslatable. Holmer has found a way to distill something unique about being a young girl in a way almost anyone can empathize with, even if they can never truly relate. And that always makes for the best cinema. Saying something with pictures when words won’t suffice.

The Fits is playing nationwide now in select theaters.

Post By Dominic Griffin (126 Posts)

Deadshirt staff writer. Dominic's loves include movies with Michael Caine, comics about people getting kicked in the face, Wham!'s greatest hits, and the amateur use of sleight of hand magic to grift strangers at train stations. His one true goal in life is to EGOT.

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