In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, emotion becomes motion and psychology becomes space. It’s a coming-of-age story, but Holmer mostly eschews dialogue and standard storytelling devices; she tells her tale through movements and patterns and the way that she films them. The Fits follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old tomboy who spends her days in an inner-city Cincinnati boxing gym with her brother, furiously doing situps and working on her punches and footwork. Practicing next door in the same community center is an all-girl dance squad, the Lionesses. Pulled in by their allure, Toni joins them, but she struggles to fit in.
Holmer films the story as if it were a dance performance, one where differences in movement and posture say more than words ever could. (The Fits may be her narrative debut, but Holmer previously produced the excellent documentary Ballet 422 and co-directed A Ballet in Sneakers: Jerome Robbins and Opus Jazz.) She shoots Toni’s workouts in the boxing gym in close-ups and flat compositions, highlighting the grind and the repetitiveness, the soundtrack filled with heavy, strained breathing. When Toni first encounters some Lionesses, she’s bent over, rolling a 5-gallon jug of water down a corridor; the other girls’ elegant looseness stands out against her heavy, menial task. Even her tight braids contrast with the dancers’ wild hair, which whips as they spin, strut and jump.
Later, Toni lugs a gym bag filled with her gear (the damn thing is almost as big as she is) as the Lionesses, fresh from a victory, flow around her, a many-headed vision of youthful abandon, their outfits popping with color and glitter. It is that fluidity and vibrancy — that confidence — that Toni tries to capture when she joins the squad and attempts to replicate their moves. As she contemplates becoming a dancer, the space around her opens up; we see a wide shot of her alone in a gym, the empty room alive with possibility. But tightness and hesitation still constrain her movement. Freedom, too, requires work, it seems.
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The title refers to a series of unexplained episodes — fainting, seizures, vomiting — that begin to hit the girls not long after Toni joins. It’s an element of menace in keeping with the movie’s otherworldly atmosphere; Holmer shoots these fits with suspense worthy of horror films, but she’s not interested in shocks or viscera. It’s a metaphor of sorts — maybe for growing up, or coming into your own, or belonging. The illness strikes each girl differently; that makes it feel like both a rite of passage and an assertion of individuality.
With dread and anticipation, Toni watches these girls shaking and seizing. She knows the fits will eventually get to her, but she doesn’t know when or how. For all the film’s aestheticism, there’s a clarity to this child’s dilemma — conveyed ably by Hightower, who is a unique kind of actress. All too often, we define young performers by their ability to be “natural” or “themselves” in front of a camera; that quality certainly has its place, but it also suggests a certain artlessness or naivete. But Hightower works, and she shows us the work. Her face strains. Her eyes peer with curiosity, then longing, then fear. She tenses up. She loosens. She pulls us into Toni’s world, but never too far; she preserves the girl’s, and the film’s, mystery. There is intelligence and purpose in her performance.
At 72 minutes, The Fits never overstays its welcome; its brevity might be part of why it’s so hard to shake. Its terseness lets you fill in the blanks and invites you to take note of the smallest detail or gesture. Without putting too fine a point on it, Holmer occasionally shows us the concrete-covered blankness of the outside world, the hard-edged reality through which Toni must move. The boxing gym — a place of aggression, where one learns to punch and defend — may prepare her to confront that environment. But the Lionesses — with their liberty, their creativity, their flow — teach her to transform it.