Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Stars: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.
Coming in at a temptingly svelte 72 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature The Fits is one of those modest joys that appear every now and again that deserve better distribution than has been generally afforded. If you can find a screening of this little film, please, go along. As already advised, it won’t take up too much of your time, but you might just feel like it’s enriched your whole day.
Young newcomer Royalty Hightower plays Toni, a pint-sized would-be boxer who trains after school. Through happenstance she finds herself spying on another group of extracurriculars. She peeps in the window at the modern street dancers. The ‘Lionesses’. She’s mesmerised by the movements. Holmer employs slow motion to emphasis her reverie. Toni wants to join them and tries, but the qualities you associate with boxing that might transfer easily to dance do not. She’s always off the beat a little, her movements lack the precision of the more experienced dancers. But still she tries. Then one by one the other girls start having unexplained fits (recalling events from Carol Morley’s The Falling).
The cause of the fits is never explained, but considering the age and gender of those suffering them, it’s not hard to guess what we’re talking about here. Having one of the fits is scary to the girls, changes how the girl having a fit is perceived, makes her special in a curious way. And when enough girls have had the fits, having not had one brings with it envy, jealously, a mild unspoken shame. You probably still can’t make a film about menstruation in America, so Holmer’s masked it, just barely.
Her approach is what makes The Fits stand out. The leanness of it. It’s no longer than it needs to be. All excess fat has been removed. In terms of shape and size, it’s almost perfect. But Holmer hasn’t finished subtracting. Dialogue isn’t really necessary either. Why tell when you can show? So most of the first half of The Fits is information shown to us. It’s not a silent film, but it feels like one. The camerawork is sleek and modern, with clean framing and shallow depth of focus similar to Moonlight. But more direct. Holmer has Hightower stare into the camera, confronting us spying on her.
With dialogue pared down other sounds become more interesting and important. The pop music echoing in a sports hall sets the rhythm for the dancers, but Holmer keeps her film poised, favouring longer takes as opposed to cutting to the music. The Fits feels a little like a documentary; we’re observing, not participating. The film remains quiet enough that footfalls and claps act like punctuation marks. The squeak of a shoe on the varnished floor. The sudden switch up from the concentration of class to the chaos of the locker room. Sound or its absence are resources. Holmer uses the medium expertly. The Fits feels like a significant debut.
The score, provided by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, is jazzy, pitted with rueful horns and suggestive parps. It’s also pared down, used sparingly. Jazz has been mingling with pop music of late, particularly with hip-hop; it’s appearance here feels not only natural but culturally savvy. At other times, thrillingly, the score is held together by a steadily organised rhythm of claps and finger snaps. It’s organic, compliments the jazzy parts, brings to mind Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”.
A lot of the time we’re left to simply watch Hightower. She has great presence. When alone and still Toni seems strong and thoughtful. In groups this diminishes. She is small, and fitting in with your peers can be stressful and daunting. Toni obviously wants to be accepted by a larger group, one with more pronounced femininity. She is torn between vocations. The film doesn’t comment on one being better or more appropriate than the other. It’s simply a matter of choice, of discovering your strengths. Our passions evolve and change, even in our formative years. Holmer doesn’t patronise her young subjects.
Dialogue becomes a little more frequent in the second half of the film as the modest mystery of the fits asserts itself. When it does, it is functional, naturalistic. Whenever movies attempt to gauge the ever-mutating idioms of high school slang, they tend to get clumsy and feel like they’re pandering. The Fits avoids this. The film does criticise its characters, however. When one girl has a fit, her audience stand quietly filming it with their phones. She looks beseechingly at them, but gets no response. The filming continues. It feels cruel. We worry that the children are heartless, but they’re as fascinated as we are and this is how the modern world is. If its worth commenting on then we expect there to be video. We want content. The social media world.
The film’s (almost) final scene will likely be the source of much discussion by those fortunate enough to see it. I’m loathe to talk about it here. It’s mysterious and provocative though, and entirely fitting in a film that soars and stands as a symbol of its creator taking a greater step out into the world. The Fits is, in part, about graduation. Reaching the next phase. Anna Rose Holmer has reached hers. What’s next will be very interesting.