First-time director Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits is a beguiling combination of coming-of-age drama, dance movie, and quasi-horror, made on a shoestring budget and starring mostly undiscovered or non-professional young actors, including the lead, 11 year-old Royalty Hightower. As the quietly watchful but determined Toni, she is on screen for virtually the entire running time, and her performance anchors the film. It’s a debut just as impressive as her director’s.
We first find Toni doing sit-ups in a boxing gym, a young girl in an otherwise all-male environment of testosterone and sweat. She trains like any of the young men, hitting the bag or jumping rope, determined to show her own strength, but she is on the outside of this world. Toni, whose name even suggests masculinity, is tolerated here by her brother and his friends simply because she is not yet a woman and therefore of no interest to them. But she is not a man either. She has yet to define herself in terms of her gender.
We gain little sense of Toni’s world outside the gym, though what we do see suggests poverty and dullness. Although the gym is safe, it is also boring, and we feel Toni’s yearning to break out of these confines. Cinematographer Paul Yee’s close, slowly-roving camerawork boxes Toni into small spaces, or captures her from behind fences or glass like a trapped animal. The most significant of these barriers is the pair of doors that leads into the other gym, this one the domain of an all-female dance troupe – the Lionesses. As their name suggests, these young women are fierce and proud, and as Toni watches them through the circular window like an explorer observing a new world for the first time, she witnesses their dancing and is transfixed.
Their movements are passionate, confrontational, animalistic, yet sensual and undeniably female. They suggest some chimeric fusion of feline and primate, though most of all their staccato, puff-chested strutting, together with their brightly-coloured clothing put me in mind of the elaborate courting rituals of exotic birds. These are not little girls, they are young women, and some of them are involved with boys from the boxing gym. Toni studies them, and begins to hear their call. By crossing the threshold into this new world, Toni will start her journey towards becoming a woman.
Once Toni begins to dance, the shots widen, the oppression lifts, and she starts to realise her dormant femininity. However, she initially struggles to find acceptance amongst the other girls, and seems particularly intimidated by the older ones who run the troupe. Toni is once again an outsider, her behaviour mirroring that of the camera, silently watching these young women, taking in their words and gestures, noticing their bodily confidence and self-assurance. Although they are alien to Toni, they are also her role models, because this is a world where adults are ciphers, either unseen or obscured by soft focus or shut off by closed doors. The older girls become the big sisters she has never had, and she looks to them for clues as to her own future, of how to be. Then, just as we think we know where this story is going, the film shifts into horror mode.
The soundtrack, which has so far been a muted soundscape of ambience as if heard from underwater, suddenly and jarringly breaks into a cacophony of ghostly wind instruments. Saxophone and clarinet wail like banshees and we are in the realm of the teen horror movie, as one-by-one the girls succumb to a mysterious epidemic that comes to be known as ‘the Fits’. Characterised by uncontrollable convulsions and choking, it strikes like an abrupt case of demonic possession. At first it affects the older girls, the ones who know about boys, and we wonder if this is some kind of STD. But then it moves on to some of the younger ones, and we wonder if this is some kind of mass hysteria, where the abnormal starts to seem like the norm, and the girls start to wonder what it feels like, and hope that the same fate will befall them soon.
It’s an effective metaphor for impending womanhood, and Toni embodies the queasy trepidation that accompanies unavoidable change, one moment daubing her nails in glittering varnish, the next desperately scratching it off in the vain hope that she can reverse the process. Like The Exorcist, another film where a girl’s transition to maturity is juxtaposed with alarming body horror, Toni and her friends find that their bodies are turning against them. Despite beginning to achieve a degree of mastery over their bodies thanks to their dancing, they are reminded that there are still physical forces that are capable of making playthings of them.
The key to the drama is Toni’s conflict with her seemingly-inevitable fate. She begins to hear the beat of the music, an insistent, tribal drum that forces her to dance, and she begins to feel the freedom and the joy of the movement. But she is also terrified of the unknown, and of being an outsider again as gradually her friends fall victim. It all leads to a jaw-dropping climax that sees Toni irreversibly changed. ‘The Fits’ is a title that could refer not just to the symptoms of the epidemic, but also to those who have become part of a group, ‘Those Who Fit.’
This is an auspicious debut from Holmer, whose sensitive and assured touch belies her inexperience. The Fits establishes her as an exciting new talent, and I for one can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Review by Matthew Blackwell