The longer you gaze at The Fits, the deeper you sink into its mysteries and truths.
As much as I want to climb the nearest rooftop to shout its praises, I’d rather watch The Fits for a fourth time. It’s a beautiful movie, no doubt, but it’s also brief. That it’s closer in length to an episode of a premium cable show, and half the runtime of your typical Oscar bait, is only part of the film’s allure (and rewatchability). More importantly, The Fits is elusive, and powerfully so. Much of that power comes from the lingering question it leaves with the viewer: What exactly did I just see? This isn’t to say the picture—the first narrative feature by writer-director Anna Rose Holmer, a career documentarian—is obtuse in a Naked Emperor kind of way. Ambiguity is, instead, a small but important component to its richness.
After my first viewing, I thought The Fits was a supernatural revenge story, a less-vicious homage to Carrie. The second time around, I saw it as an extended superhero origin tale, something akin to Chronicle. Prior to my final watch, I read that Holmer’s inspirations included the Dancing Plague of 1518 and the Lisztomania of mid-19th century Paris. Consequently, I now think The Fits is a cousin to Billy Elliott, with the gender roles of their leads reversed and social hysteria added to the former’s mix. These three readings, however dissimilar, still appear equally valid in my mind. When I squint the right way, each interpretation is supported by the source material. Not bad for 72 minutes of cinema.
The Fits is fundamentally a coming-of-age drama. Its most welcome twist, and there are many, is the lack of any external conflict. Our young hero Toni, played by the perfectly named Royalty Hightower, begins as a budding pugilist. Thanks to her close, and sweet, relationship to her brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), she’s a young lady comfortably embedded in a boy’s world, a boxing gym in a Cincinnati community center.
That building also houses the Lionesses, an all-girl dance troupe (played by the Q-Kidz, a real-life Cincinnatian squad). Early on in The Fits, Toni is seduced by the companionship shared by her female peers, and the booming rhythms they stomp and sway to next door. Little by little, she defects from the ring and is lured into the studio. In a lesser film, someone (say, her brother) would try to stop her. Toni would have to overcome adversity, to fight prejudice. Instead, she just has to learn her steps like anyone else.
The movie’s title refers to the unexplained spasms that, one by one, begin to overtake the Lionesses. The central mystery of The Fits is the source of these episodes, and if Toni has anything to do with them. But the real drama centers on conformity, which Toni alternately accepts and rejects throughout (via fake tattoos, ear piercings, spangly uniforms). The titular fits are, ultimately, shorthand for fitting in. The film ends decisively, but also with a triumphant compromise. In a fabulous closing sequence, Toni brings the Lionesses into her own den.
The Fits features a predominantly adolescent and black cast. We meet a handful of adults; Toni and Jermaine’s mother, who’s referenced briefly, is never shown. The only white actor we encounter is unnamed and in the background of a single scene. This should feel striking, and in a way it does, but Holmer treats it as unexceptional. Besides a passing reference to Flint (which is merely a coincidence), The Fits has little to say about race in particular because its focus is the daily tedium of youth in general.
With each viewing of The Fits, I became less concerned with its meaning and more mesmerized by its remarkable, unpolished actors. Royalty Hightower is a burgeoning star. Her Toni is at once proud and athletic, vulnerable and insecure. She anchors the movie and carries it on her sturdy shoulders. The Q-Kidz are natural performers, bitchy or sympathetic depending on the scene, but always recognizably teenaged. And despite their showy masculinity, the film’s young male boxers are lean and ropy pussycats.
Anna Rose Holmer frames Toni’s flourishing with bursting sunshine and constant movement. Though much of The Fits takes place indoors, scene after scene is dappled in natural light through high-set windows. Cinematographer Paul Yee is obsessed with perpetual motion, particularly before and after a cut, which gives the impression of unabating inertia. We’re invariably moving forward, just as Toni appears to be killing time at any one moment.
And so, The Fits barrels toward its spectacular finale, a joyous and dreamlike cap to a small but mighty picture. Few films, debut or otherwise, are so fully realized. Fewer still are so indescribable. The longer you gaze at The Fits, the deeper you sink into its mysteries and truths. And the more you want to return to them.