Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Bout of "The Fits"

"The Fits" presents a wonderfully immersive experience, putting us into the world of an eleven year-old African American girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower). She frequents the gym at her local community center with her older brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) and his friends, where she trains in boxing. One day, Toni notices a girls' dance troupe practicing across the hall, and decides to join up. She makes friends with other newcomers Beezy (Alexis Neblett) and Maia (Lauren Gibson), and leaves the gym culture behind. The troupe is troubled, however, when some of the older girls start having uncontrollable shaking spells that everyone calls "the fits."

Written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, Toni's growing pains are an engrossing study of gender roles, conformity, and the existential dread of impending maturation. The divide between the girls and the boys is laid out so neatly, with the two groups cordoned off in their own spaces in the community center, and the expectations of girlhood mirrored by the dance routines where all the performers are expected to synchronize their movements together. The "fits" initially seem shocking and sinister, but as more and more girls are afflicted, they become something like a rite of passage. At times Toni seems eager to embrace her feminine side, having fun with her friends and enjoying some aspects of the troupe. But at other times, it feels like the choice is out of her hands entirely, and her absorption by the group is a predetermined, inescapable fate.

I really enjoyed the approach that Holmer took with the storytelling, which uses very little exposition. The first ten minutes are almost free of dialogue, simply following Toni through her normal routine at the gym. We're well situated in her little world of stoic masculine figures, before her gaze drifts to the girls waiting in the doorway and practicing their dancing across the hall. And once she notices the divide, it dominates her thoughts and the frame, until she's a lone figure in the hallway, trudging against a streaming tide of laughing, joyous femininity. Who could blame her for wanting to belong? The imagery is particularly strong, finding so many ways to emphasize Toni's feelings of being an outsider among the girls. She doesn't dress like them, move like them, or behave like them at first. Newcomer Royalty Hightower wonderfully embodies all the little social anxieties and episodes of preteen moodiness that Toni experiences. Since Toni says so little, most of her performance is in her body language. The other standout is Alexis Neblett as outspoken, energetic little Beezy, who immediately latches on to Toni as a new friend.

The use of the "fits" is particularly interesting, in that it evokes so much, from the specter of violence that Toni might face in the future as an African-American teenager to religious and spiritual awakening. The most obvious reading is that the shaking and spasms are visually similar to the dance movements of the troupe, and as Toni becomes more fully attuned to them, she becomes more susceptible to whatever is causing the "fits" to occur. Note that no one actually points to mass hysteria or offers any other explanation for why the "fits" are happening. Though based on true events, diagnosing and stopping the problem isn't part of the narrative. The fits don't really even enter into the story until about a third of the way through, and a final resolution is elusive. For Toni, they remain the product of a mysterious force, like so many other mysterious forces guiding the changes in her life.

"The Fits" runs barely over an hour in length, and is the product of several micro-budget and micro-timeline initiatives for young directors from the Venice and Sundance film festivals. It is the first film from Anna Rose Holmer, who shot the whole picture at an inner city Cincinnati community center with mostly non-professional actors. However, the film is so well conceived and executed, it doesn't feel even remotely truncated or compromised in any way. Rather, there's an invigorating energy to the film, especially in the physicality of the dance sequences and the hallucinatory finale. More importantly, there's an authenticity to its characters and their experiences, a sense of place and culture that is vital to the story's effectiveness.


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