24th – 27th March 2017, DCA
It is rare that coming of age stories are rewarded with such verity as The Fits. Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film weaves a minimal but complex poetic narrative which centres on Toni (Royalty Hightower), a heedful protagonist whose steady, athletic posture amidst the nervous tension of “taking part” elevates her beyond the traditional concept of the school misfit.
For the first twenty minutes of the film, Toni speaks to the audience with only her eyes ; the camera trains squarely on her face, in close-up, presenting us with an unwavering portrayal of her determination as she struggles with sit ups and jumps in and out of shot as she skips. The camera work is immediately choreographic, less in the sense of long pans and clever cuts than its enabling Hightower to perform directly to camera.
The sole location is an almost utopian community centre, divided into two realms. The film’s distinguished use of colour separates the boyish blue and red boxing gym from the vibrant purple and yellow of the female dominated dance hall, where the champion dance team the “Lionesses” practice. Although the segregation of genders is glaringly obvious, it rings true with the ages it represents; the sexual tension is there between the older boys and girls, but instead of seeming insidious (inescapable in most locker room dramas ), Toni’s understanding gaze labels it instead as inconsequential fact.
The film continues with Toni seamlessly flitting between the two realms. Her initial reluctance to join the dance troupe is softened by a few lines of encouragement from her brother (idyllic sibling portrayal is another strength of the film – Toni and her brother evidently share a very independent, “grown up” kind of friendship), and she owns the aggressively feminine thrashings of the Lionesses dance by retaining her strong, signature boxing jabs.
Holmer never sacrifices any of Toni’s individuality, and she evokes the anxiety of non-conformance symbolically with girlish, physical decorations that become increasingly hard to remove. They range from accidental – Toni wiping her hand in some glitter whilst initially spying on the dancing practice – to determined and painful, when she pierces her ears without even a scream; but, as with her painted nails, these adornments are always removed.
The film leans heavily on theatrical metaphor, with most of the dialogue spoken by the body. It feels like a ballet that accentuates and celebrates the trope of athletic black bodies in a lesson of the importance of representation – Holmer worked with an actual dance troupe and let the girls choreograph their own fits. The moves of the Lionesses are real, powerful, unapologetic and dynamic. The girls’ always bold but never hostile interactions go beyond competition dramas like Bring it On and Step Up by instead providing an almost wordless portrait of team mates and we never see any opposition materialize.
Thus, the actual fits become almost secondary in the film. It feels less like a thriller, and more of a psychological peek into the mechanics of “fitting in”. Holmer took much of her inspiration from historical instances of mass psychogenic illness, like the Le Roy cheerleaders of 2012. The community center tests the girls’ water and even blood, but the most frightening conclusion is that the fits are passing between the girls through their enviable team unity. This is evident in the lack of adults present and in the scene where Toni’s friend Beezy (Alexis Neblett) fits in front of a councillor who has no clue what to do.
Any understanding of the goings-on remains between the girls‘ physical togetherness, and the fits symbolise a community-grounded acceptance of self. There are no mushy heart to hearts or revealing dialogue – just a strong black community sticking together and getting things done. Holmer’s utterly beautiful, poetic representation of collective strength and girlhood works under the same themes as the household coming-of-age noughties numbers. And yet, with Toni leading the way as a more unwavering, sophisticated heroine, The Fits should be i an energetic, political call to arms for togetherness.