As enigmatic as its title, The Fits, a film by Anna Rose Holmer, places us quietly into its fictional world and gives us time to get our bearings. A young girl on the edge of adolescence, maybe 11 years old, is doing sit-ups. Then we see her learning how to box from an older boy. She’s quiet, self-contained. Other than her counting the sit-ups, we don’t really hear her speak for the first fifteen minutes or so. This patient narrative approach, where we discover things on our own, is a key element of the film’s style.
What we do learn is that the girl’s name is Toni, and the boy is her older brother who apparently works or volunteers at this gym/community center. But Toni is also curious about what’s going on in another part of the building—teenage girls are practicing as part of a competitive dance troupe. Eventually she gets up the nerve to join the troupe and try to learn their highly elaborate and athletic dance routines. She’s not very good at first, but that doesn’t discourage her. She seems more challenged by the feminine rituals and behaviors evidenced by the older girls, at one point going into a stall to change out of her gym clothes—one assumes because she doesn’t want the teenagers to see her body.
Now, I’ve been using ambiguous words so far—apparently, seems, maybe, assumes—because Holmer’s style isn’t about spelling out clear and definable meanings for the viewer to digest. The camera takes Toni as its point of view exclusively, so that everything is seen as occurring within the experience of this quiet, serious, introverted girl. The young actress playing Toni has the marvelous name Royalty Hightower, and she’s a real find. With a child actor, one is usually satisfied with relaxed naturalness. With Hightower we get a lot more—intensity and strength of resolve combined with a tentative and uncertain frame of mind. This newcomer holds our attention like a veteran. Another new actress, Alexis Neblett, plays a small girl who also joins the troupe and befriends Toni. Her restless curiosity forms a nice contrast.
The film creates a strange mood, a haunting sense of isolation, and this is where the title comes in, The Fits. The teenage girls in the dance troupe start to have, one by one, strange seizures or fits where they writhe on the ground and have trouble breathing. Although they all recover after a few days in the hospital, naturally everyone gets really scared. At one point, there is speculation by adults that the building’s water has been contaminated. But tests come up negative. Speaking of adults, the film doesn’t have many of them—we never see Toni’s mom, for instance. We stay within the hermetic world of children and teens.
So what are these fits? Why do only the girls have them, and not the boys? Is the fact that these are all African American kids of any relevance? I even nursed the idea that the metaphor extends to a sort of play on words—fits, and the desire to fit in. A lesser film might draw an explicit conclusion, but Holmer is interested in evoking that ungrounded feeling of adolescence, the not knowing what life is about but having to act like you do—and in doing so, the director has created a weird and unsettling work of art. The Fits really manages to get under your skin.