The Fits

Review by Simran Hans @heavier_things

Directed by

Anna Rose Holmer

Starring

Alexis Neblett Makyla Burnam Royalty Hightower

Anticipation.

Such a literal title leaves little to the imagination.

Enjoyment.

Female hysteria revisited from a fresh angle.

In Retrospect.

A striking oddity that lingers like a dream.

Anna Rose Holmer’s sparkling directorial debut offers a fresh take on female coming-of-age.

Punches are swapped for pirouettes and the side effects of hysteria in Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature film, about a young tomboy who joins an all-girl dance troupe. Ten year old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is training to be a boxer – one who stands in the centre of the ring, steely faced, administering powerful and precise punches.

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Inspired by her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), she begins to watch the dance troupe that practice next door with growing fascination. A seed of curiosity blossoms within her. When she decides to join their ranks, a mysterious plague strikes the older girls. They begin falling to the floor and fitting, jerking and foaming at the mouth.

Their routines aren’t exactly delicate – The Lionesses stomp, thump and crump with as much fiery aggression as the boys who box. But Toni isn’t quite able to catch the beat, contorting her bony body and awkwardly adorning herself with the markers of girl-ness. Accompanied by new friend and charming comic foil Beezy (Alexis Neblett), she pierces her ears (with a safety pin) and steps into a sequinned leotard. But these feminine decorations never stick. Toni peels a temporary tattoo from her bicep, picks off the gold polish from her fingernails and takes out the earrings, which become infected.

Tomboyishness is a recurring theme in coming-of-age films that feature black girls (The Fits features an all African-American cast). From titles like Spike Lee’s Crooklyn to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball and beyond, the female protagonists find themselves caught between gendered spaces. Prepubescent Toni possesses the ability to move between these spaces without fixing herself comfortably in either – partly due to Hightower’s commanding and quietly forceful presence.

Writer/director Holmer’s decision to limit most of the action to the community centre where both the dancers and the boxers train creates a private world, sealed off from parents and teachers who remain out of the frame at all times. The gym, the locker room, the winding, labyrinthine hallways are often empty. Cinematographer Paul Yee almost always ensures Toni is visually dislocated from the other elements – human or otherwise – within the frame.

Further dissonance is created by use of music. Holmer resists relying on pop cues, allowing, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s jagged, atonal score to control the woozy atmosphere instead. (The composing duo created similarly discordant soundscapes for wacky wannabe B-movie Enemy and cult-themed thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene.)

Some may find the film’s lean running time of 72 minutes too slight, though Holmer’s early instinct for brevity is a smart one. The storytelling is elegantly economical, characterised by a looseness and a spontaneity that’s rooted in authenticity. By collaborating with real life dance team The Q-Kidz and the Cincinatti community in which the film is set, Holmer creates the feeling that anything can happen.

As for the fits themselves, Holmer is careful when it comes to offering literal explanations for the events on screen. She resists delivering direct statements, instead trusting viewers to draw their own conclusions and answer the question at the core of her film: why is being a teenage girl so traumatic?

Published 23 Feb 2017

Tags: Anna Rose Holmer

Anticipation.

Such a literal title leaves little to the imagination.

Enjoyment.

Female hysteria revisited from a fresh angle.

In Retrospect.

A striking oddity that lingers like a dream.

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