Negotiating the onset of adolescence can be a tricky thing — for kids, obviously, but also for filmmakers. Some sugarcoat it. Others exploit it. Many wrap it in a glaze of syrupy nostalgia. With The Fits, first-time feature director Anna Rose Holmer does something I haven’t seen before. She captures approaching adolescence for what it really is: an out-of-body experience.
The body in question is that of Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl who is learning to box alongside her older brother and the other boys at a Cincinnati community center. The movie opens with a shot of Toni huffing and puffing through a series of sit ups — her blurry figure coming into focus each time she brings her elbows to her knees, at which point she stares into the camera. Toni trains with the same ferocity as the young men, and though we don’t see her fight, we do notice at one point that she’s suffered a bloody lip.
Toni seems comfortable with this tomboy identity. But she begins to wonder about other possibilities when she notices the older girls from a competitive dance team that practices at the center. Peeking at the boxing boys through the window, flirting with them after practice and generally shrieking and giggling as they run through the halls, this is a different breed from Toni. Does becoming a teenager mean she should be more like them? Is she on the wrong path? She joins the team to find out.
Holmer’s camera emphasizes Toni’s uniqueness by almost always framing her as a figure apart from the crowd. At times she’s standing still while her many teammates flow around her in a gaggle of giggles. At other moments she’s moving in the opposite direction of the crowd. Although her movie is set almost entirely in a familiar and nondescript location — a community center — Holmer makes strategic use of the space at hand, creating wide shots that allow her athletic actors to use the entire frame or tighter compositions to emphasize the claustrophobia of a locker room. Toni’s decision to join the group, in fact, is captured in a widescreen, dialogue-free single-take shot of Toni alone in an empty gym, where she tentatively tries variations of the dance moves she’s been watching.
The fits represent a fearful rite of passage, one Toni may have to face on her way to adulthood.
After Toni becomes part of the dance team, The Fits shifts into another, stranger gear — one referenced by its title. What could have been an inspirational, sports-themed coming-of-age tale takes on a tinge of horror. (And if horror seems too strong a word, consider the movie’s ingenious sound design, which includes slow rumbles, threatening rattles and a long horn that sounds like the whistle of a train unsure of what track it’s on.) One day at practice, one of the older dancers suffers a seizure of sorts, shaking and sputtering uncontrollably. A few days later, the same thing happens to another girl, and then another. Parents and city officials launch an investigation into the community center’s water supply. Toni’s friend notes that it’s only happening to older girls and wonders if it’s “some kind of boyfriend disease.” For Toni, the fits come to represent another fearful rite of passage, one that she may have to face on her way to adulthood.
Thanks to the sound design and clever camerawork, The Fits is deeply attuned to Toni’s inner conflict over where she should take her body (or where it might be taking her). Holmer focuses her camera almost exclusively on bodies, letting their display and movements communicate psychology and emotion (dialogue in the film is minimal). Often the actors’ bodies are in action — close-ups of feet skipping rope, for instance. But there are other key moments in which they’re being measured, whether it’s the boys checking their weight before a fight or Toni being fitted for a competition costume.
If Toni is a girl in uneasy transition — both physically and emotionally — Holmer offers another mesmerizing single take that captures this. On a caged bridge over a busy highway, Toni begins performing jumping jacks, which are part of her boxing training. But then she switches gears — as a clicking beat picks up on the soundtrack — and busts into a fitful variation on her dance routine. Holmer’s camera glides in closer as the rhythm picks up, and eventually we notice something about this frequently sullen, quiet and hooded figure: she’s smiling.
That’s a wonderful moment, yet The Fits ends with a sequence that is even more ecstatic. I won’t give away any details, but suffice it to say that Holmer, who worked on the film’s story with Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff, took a huge risk in leading The Fits in a metaphysical direction, and it pays off. The movie’s climax — in which fantasy and reality merge to create something exhilaratingly in between — is a stunning dance routine that, like Beyonce’s “Formation” video, combines feminist choreography with a Pentecostal understanding of what it means to be “slain in the Spirit.” The Fits isn’t simply about a girl cutely coming of age. It’s about a girl transformed.