THE FITS * * * 1 / 2
Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Inayah Rodgers, Makyla Burnham and Da’Sean Minor. Written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer.
Not since Carrie White stepped into the locker room shower has a young girl’s coming of age been fraught with as much mystery and unease as in this mesmerizing debut from writer-director Anna Rose Holmer. A movie in the purest, “motion-picture” sense of the word, The Fits doesn’t have much use for dialogue, telling its story almost entirely through movement, sound design and physical space. At times inscrutable, the film burrows its way into the back of your head where it lingers long after the credits roll. Weeks later, you may find yourself still turning it over in your mind.
The amazing (and amazingly named) Royalty Hightower stars as Toni, a sullen preteen tomboy helping her big brother train at the local boxing gym afterschool. She’s got a watchful gaze and a naturally commanding screen presence; imagine if Steve McQueen was an eleven-year-old black girl and you’re starting to get the idea. She’s the pint sized mascot for some big-mouthed boxers, but there’s an inner steeliness to Hightower’s performance suggesting Toni could probably take a punch better than any of them.
Bored with the boys and their braggadocio, her curiosity is piqued by the dance team rehearsals across the hall at the community center. We follow Toni tentatively peeking in on their loud, alien universe of sparkly fashion accessories and syncopated gyrations. Holmer keeps the camera subjective, with expressionistic angles allowing us to share the young girl’s wonder and intimidation. Eventually Toni musters up enough courage to try out for the junior squad. Nicknamed The Crabs, these kids study under the draconian mean girl rule of the varsity Lionesses.
The Fits observes this large and confounding ecosystem of teenage girls through our heorine’s eyes; glimpses caught around corners or through cracks in doorways, snatches of conversations overheard. The adults are abstractions, filmed either out of focus or with their heads lopped off by the top of the frame like in a Peanuts cartoon. It’s a smart way of formally isolating us alongside the main character. Toni’s all alone, and we’re with her.
One by one, the girls on the team begin to suffer terrifying, inexplicable seizures. At first local officials think it might have something to do with the water, but they don’t realize we’re dealing with a big honking metaphor here. What makes it work so well is that Holmer doesn’t ever get boringly literal or explain away the title malady. The convulsions could be standing in for menstruation, or conformity, loss of virginity or really any rite of passage that ever scared the shit out of you as a kid. The film allows enough room for us to store our own baggage.
Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee do a brilliant job of realizing nearly everything in purely physical terms. Often The Lionesses and The Crabs occupy opposing sides of the cinemascope frame, with sharp visual demarcations keeping them separated. Toni’s uneasiness is manifested in peeling glittery nail polish or infected ear piercings, her clumsy punches and kicks evolving into elegance as the film progresses.
She’s learning to confront the uncertain with confidence, and in a bafflingly beautiful climax, Toni turns to face the strange with something like transcendence.