In Fits and Stops: Coming of Age in Anna Rose Holmer’s Extraordinary “The Fits”

the fits royalty hightower

When I first saw the trailer for The Fits, we were going to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and mordant The Lobster at Atlanta’s Midtown Arts Cinema. Half paying attention, I assumed the tale of a Cincinatti teen who joins a dance team would be a gag-inducing inspirational sports/dance flick—Rookie of the Year or Save the Last Dance by way of Akeelah and the Bee.

It’s understandable that promoters of a dark, underdog indie film would want to frame it in misleadingly appealing terms for mainstream audiences—it happens all the time—but I can’t blame the team behind first-time director Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits for playing an Entourage-style bait-and-switch with their trailer. On second viewing, it’s clear that the ad for the film conveys the dread and tension that utterly soaks the actual movie. I was just too blind to see it the first time around.

Indeed, the phrase “psychological drama” in the film’s Rotten Tomatoes tagline gives you an idea of where we’re going.  This is no Bend It Like Beckham—not in the slightest. Rather, The Fits is perhaps the most striking and original film I’ve seen all year.  The story of 11-year-old Toni unravels as a penetrating and unforgettable meditation on the agonies of adolescence, as well as the marginalization and exclusion of black youth in Cincinnati—one of the poorest and most segregated inner-cities in the country.

The film opens with Toni relentlessly training and practicing as a boxer at the rec center where her older brother works.  Why the young girl is pursuing a stereotypically macho and violent sport such as boxing is unclear in the film, but she is supported and encouraged by her brother, who spars with her.  Toni is a tomboy, more muscular and less socially engaged than her peers, who are all tweens aspiring to some ideal or another of femininity.  She sees the girls in the dance team at the center and spies something intriguing—seductive, powerful, appealing.

It is, for the pre-teen, the ineluctable appeal of the group, of belonging, as well as a kind of sexuality that she finds puzzling but irresistible. At the rec center, the dance team is no joke—the coaches and head dancers make it clear that you have to practice, at the center, at home, at school, and you have to “stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team.”  What better metaphor is there for the insatiable urge to fit in of the young adolescent?  Copying each other’s moves, trying to act in unison with the group—the dance team provides young Toni her first chance at fitting in and being like the others, and she commits herself to it with gusto.

Without giving too much away in the spoiler department, it’s fair to say that the young women on the team begin to experience mysterious seizures—hence the title, The Fits. The girls start to shake, their eyes blank before rolling back, at times seemingly suspended in place like marionettes before falling to the floor.  At first, the incidents seem like a fluke, but when one after another occurs, the community and the news media pay attention to the strange goings-on at this Cincinnati rec center.

The Fits girls

Perhaps most curiously of all, life more or less goes on as normal.  Kids keep coming to dance practice, and girls keep having seizures.  In a middle-class, suburban community, one imagines that worried families would pull their children out of a class the minute the second seizure happened, i.e. as soon as a disturbing pattern seemed to exist.  Yet the dance team is mostly undeterred, even as authority figures—health inspectors, city bureaucrats, reporters—come and go, who are all notably white and distant characters, dropping in on a foreign community like a UN peacekeeper or an anthropologist in Samoa.  Eventually, authorities suspect the strange health problems are the result of contaminated water at the center, and all students are told to drink bottled water.

The resonance with the contemporary abandonment and literal poisoning of urban communities such as Flint is inescapable, as well as the longer history of environmental racism and ill effects caused by asbestos, lead paint, and the like.  The girls in Cincinnati are more or less expendable—a fact they seem to be dimly aware of, though they press forward with Friday Night Lights conviction in their commitment to dance.

Growing pains
Growing pains

Indeed, it’s striking how there are no parents in Holmer’s film. Toni’s brother seems to be her main caretaker, and her mother only comes up as an aside when he mentions that he’ll be making dinner one night.  Girls are left unattended at the center when parents and foster parents fail to show up to pick them up.  It is hard to tell whether Holmer intends her film to be a commentary on the nature of dysfunctional schools, families, and communities in urban America—not only parents but school itself is completely absent in the movie, which focuses solely on the recreation and, indeed, the work that Toni and the other children do at the rec center. (Toni, who is too young to hold a job legally, is often seen sweeping and folding clothes to help her brother out.) There is no studying or AP classes or anything else: only dance, and work. Perhaps the writer-director’s point is that the children in the film are so marginalized by racism and inequality—the economic disadvantage that takes away their parents to second and third jobs and possibly poisons their water—that the rec center and dance become their entire worlds.  The film certainly focuses with laser-like precision on this one, decrepit urban milieu as the stage for its story.

As a film, The Fits borrows from the unflinching psychological terror of a Hitchcock while employing the cold, analytical gaze of a Bergman.  Its cinematography exhibits a beautiful sense of balance and geometric symmetry familiar from the work of Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson, capturing Toni and the other girls in shots that counterpoise kinetic physicality with an austere, even spooky environment. The score is deliriously taut and askew like the music in the best thriller films, conveying equal parts menace and uncertainty as Toni’s grappling with adulthood unfolds.  And lead actress Royalty Hightower is a revelation, whose face seems to contain multitudes of feeling just in her quiet, steely stare.  Some viewers may find the film—which runs a slight 72 minutes—to be slow and meandering. But it’s remarkable that Holmer could pack so much visual and psychological punch in to such a short time.

The Fits is, most superficially, a story about the aspirations and struggles of youth on the fringes of American society, but on a profounder level, it is an allegory of the horror of coming of age as a young woman. Over time, the seizures begin to become a sort of rite of passage, as the affected girls swap stories and even begin to brag about what they’ve experienced. Even as parents and other authorities are conspicuously absent, the writhing, shaking trauma spreads among the young women of the dance team, normalized and accepted in a way that may seem bizarre and surreal to an outsider, looking in.  Alone, hungry, and ambitious, yet not expecting society to do anything for them, the girls of the dance team come to take “the fits” for granted.  And trauma becomes as much a matter of conformity as the yearning to mimic each other’s dance moves as perfectly as possible.  By creating a fascinating snapshot of youth and urban America that leaves open worlds of possibility and ambiguity, Anna Rose Holmer has created one of the most striking film debuts of the year.