Following ‘It Follows’ and ‘The Babadook’ in the recent tradition of indie horror with real-life allegory, Anna Rose Holmer’s ‘The Fits’ is a masterpiece. But Holmer’s is a film focused not on scares, but on setting. She and cinematographer Paul Yee imbue the Cincinnati community center they rarely venture from with layer after layer of life through their remarkable visual storytelling.
Not to mention their terrific lead actress, eleven-year-old newcomer Royalty Hightower. The semi-biographical story of Toni’s (Hightower) growth from a boxing tomboy to a graceful member of a dance team suits her well. Her arc isn’t told through dialogue (there isn’t much in the film) but shown through movement and shot composition.
We know she’s committed to the idea of switching sports because we’ve seen how determined she is when she’s training. The opening sequence of the film is Toni working on her punches. It’s this crucial scene that endears us to her. We feel like her experience is our experience because we naturally see what she’s like and how passionate she is.
When Toni first thinks seriously about joining the dance team on the other side of the hall, she has to stand on her tiptoes to look through a skinny little window. She takes time to imitate some of their moves when her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) isn’t looking.
Jermaine is never shown apart from Toni’s view of him. Neither are any adults – a sly move to keep our attention on the kids. The camerawork is kept exclusively in Toni’s headspace and perspective, which is what keeps us sympathetic to her and initially disapproving of the older girls in the dance team. The detail is not in the plot, but in the film’s visual language.
As the plot does thicken, however, ‘The Fits’ becomes more than just a superb character study. It elevates into a stunning coming-of-age story and a profound statement on sisterhood. As the older girls start to experience the “fits” of the title – sudden seizures with no clear explanation – Toni and her new friends start to wonder what it all could mean and why it isn’t happening to them.
There’s a subplot with teachers and parents concerned about the drinking water; one girl calls it a “boyfriend disease,” but Holmer isn’t trying to stick the landing on her allegory. She’s much more interested in where the setup can take her. This results in an incredible climax and one of the most exhilarating endings of a film I’ve seen in quite some time.
When I sit down to watch a film, I want to be transported into a character’s experience. It doesn’t matter how specific or bizarre the story might appear on the surface – if I find it relatable, that means the world to me. I am a twenty-something white male who’s just finishing college. How could I ever relate to an eleven-year-old black female athlete who’s having her first taste of womanhood? ‘The Fits,’ that’s how.
The Fits = A
‘The Fits’ is not rated, contains mature thematic elements.