Most American indie films lack a sense of mystery. The Fits has it in spades. Anna Rose Holmer’s elliptical debut confronts our need to pigeonhole gender and identity through performance. These preconceived judgments about who should participate in sport and art are so naturally ingrained in society that it’s hard to pinpoint where they begin and end. Individual expression challenges such norms in exciting ways, offering hope of a newfound convergence between physical and emotional expression.
The film takes place almost entirely in an expansive Cincinnati community center used by different groups of primarily African American youth. Sometimes bustling with activity, the space can also feel like an abandoned playground. Here, desires and jealousies meld seamlessly with the unexplained moments of adolescence, most glaringly when multiple girls on the dance team begin to have seizure-like symptoms. Without warning, their bodies become frozen in space, seemingly transfixed by an invisible stranglehold. Young men who use the space for boxing are left unaffected.
Traditional gender roles mean nothing to Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl who incessantly trains in the boxing gym with her older brother. The opening shot finds her doing sit-ups, rising up and out of the frame in determined defiance. Holmer’s patient camera tracks her incessantly, paying attention to the mundane tasks that connect eventual moments of change. Early on, Toni first glimpses a rehearsal for the expressionist dance team while pushing a large gallon of water up a steep ramp. The gravitational push from the heavy container is no match for the allure of music.
Toni secretly begins experimenting with her own form of dance, one that merges both boxing and hip-hop. Breaking free of routine becomes a natural byproduct of transitioning between childhood and the adult world. To forge your own path means recognizing and also subverting the experiences that have come before. Eventually, her brother notices Toni’s increased interest and suggests she tries out for The Lionesses dance team.
If the community center’s boxing area (a place populated only by men) remains a church of individual achievement and betterment, the practice room for dance provides a space for collective female bodies in motion. Toni’s slender frame gets swallowed up in a sea of controlled chaos. The mysterious illness that first spreads between the older girls and then down the ranks seems to be a viral attack on predetermined notions of hierarchy and conformity. Holmer doesn’t address these ideas overtly, but the order in which each character becomes stricken makes for a fascinating metaphor nonetheless.
It’s important to note that Toni is left unscathed from the seizures while her friends and leaders become members of a panicked club, doubling down on her outsider status. She finds herself trapped between passions, too masculine for seductive gyrations of the dance club, too feminine for the macho uppercuts of the boxing ring.
The Fits, which opens Friday, July 8, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, alludes to possession as a necessary rite of passage, something Toni initially experiences from afar. This changes during the film’s mesmerizing final passage, a collection of surreal and expressionistic images that cohere a number of competing thematic impulses. All the mystery that’s been building is released through Toni’s evolving perspective.
Unlike the appallingly manipulative Swiss Army Man, a trite and showy film about loneliness that treats its viewers like freshman philosophy students, The Fits sees coming-of-age not as a twee excuse for showboating but an opportunity to deepen the mystery of everyday expression. Work and play are not separate experiences but flipsides of the same thorny perspective. Toni’s curiosity about this evolution confirms her singularity as a human being. In the end, she’s no longer a slave to gravity, or the limitations put upon her by others. All the world’s her stage.