The first time I heard about Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature, The Fits, I was hooked on the premise. Never mind the added bonus that the film’s protagonist was a young black girl. In a Rolling Stone article, Holmer described how the concept for the film was born. Seizures that affected whole towns in medieval times was the seed that eventually grew into the film that’s been unanimously praised. I’m chiming in with my own.
Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower) is training alongside her older brother in the boxing ring. She’s incredibly focused even at eleven (Hightower was just nine when filming began). For a glimpse at just how impressive Toni is, she can do sits ups and push ups with little fuss. Even with her shallow breathing and the evident strain, this is a little girl who just gets it done. But Toni gravitates toward the all girls dance team, The Lionesses, that also practice in the same center. She’s a quiet observer, watching them impassively, but communicating a palpable desire to join them nonetheless. Her brother encourages her to try out.
Toni’s audition doesn’t go well, since she lacks the necessary coordination and rhythm, but she ends up on the team. She becomes friends with the chatty and energetic Beezy (a scene stealing Alexis Neblett). Soon however, the two dance captains suffer seizures during regular practice. These fits begin to afflict the other girls while the unaffected are stricken with shock and curiosity. The phenomenon is obviously disturbing, and even watching it is enough to cause discomfort. At first the water the girls are drinking is cited as the culprit, but when it’s revealed not to be the cause, no further explanations are forthcoming. These attacks remain shrouded in mystery. There are a host of interpretations and Holmer leaves the audience to come up with their own.
The dance team is competitive, the girls aggressive and dedicated. Dance is on the same level as boxing. These are rigorous sports which require discipline. To see a girl oriented activity as worthy alongside a male dominated sport, nothing dainty or delicate about either of them, was one of the most profound statements in the film.
Toni wants to be accepted into this exclusive band of girls. She’s already been accepted as “one of the guys”, something that’s usually an honored accomplishment for girls. But being accepted by one of the girls has a greater lure. These girls have power. There’s something sacred about them and their dance routines. The Lionesses are intimidating but not totally unapproachable. Seeing them through Toni’s eyes, identifying with her longing, that’s something only a woman could capture.
There’s something so natural about this film, from the sparse dialogue to the fact that none of the girls had prior acting experience. Hightower’s own dance team was featured on film, actually. There’s an added layer of authenticity because these girls are clearly talented. They even reminded me of girls I went to high school with and met at summer camp. Holmer began with a startlingly unique concept and populated the film with characters who seem familiar enough while still retaining originality.
A film that centers black girls, one that’s free of gendered and racial expectations, is not only a breath of fresh air, but absolutely necessary. I can’t help but think of the impressionable girls who will see this and feel inspired and confident in their own skin. Black girls have multifaceted lives and experiences, too. Holmer made an incisive remark about the film’s themes:
“…why is a a story about a white boy growing up a ‘coming-of-age’ movie, but a movie about an African-American girl a ‘niche film’?”
I’ve never understood why those white boy films are emblematic of growing up, but the so called niche films can only be understood, and therefore marketed to, a niche audience. Even if The Fits isn’t relatable to boys at all, that shouldn’t prevent them from seeing it. Being aware of different experiences and perspectives can nurture understanding and empathy. More films like this one, preferably with women filmmakers at the helm, is something I will always support.
Royalty Hightower is a radiant new talent. I hope we get to see more of her. Her presence is so overwhelming in how sincere and even aloof it is, but there’s a warmth to her anyway. As Toni she’s unassuming, serene, focused, the perfect pair of eyes to witness the mystery of the fits and the mystery of growing up.
Holmer described growing up as a kind of dance. The benefit of careful and precise choreography is missing. With its vibrant cinematography and eerie, almost erratic score, The Fits is a graceful exploration of growing up anyway.