The Fits Finds a Beautiful Mystery in the Act of Growing Up
Coming of age with a strong sense of self and convulsions.
Film as metaphor can be an important tool, but it’s too easily abused by filmmakers who allow the symbolism to swallow every shred of character or narrative in its path. The best examples layer in the meaning as subtext while allowing the film to stand on its own, while at the other end of the spectrum you end up with something like Avatar. Not a bad plan if you’re only interested in box-office, but if you’re trying to actually tell a story with voice and purpose the metaphorical meaning needs to be woven in carefully.
Director/co-writer Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut, The Fits, does just that, and the result is a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale.
Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a pre-teen tomboy who spends much of her time at a local community center where she trains in and out of the boxing ring with her older brother, Jermaine. Displaying a quiet intelligence and dedicated work ethic, she focuses on building muscle and speed with the boys while other girls work elsewhere on more feminine activities. Their predominant choice is embodied in a championship dance squad called The Lionesses.
Their competitive routines are team efforts as girls move, sway, and shake in often aggressive unison, and Toni can only ignore their pull for so long. She attends tryouts, cautiously, but as she excels at the muscular moves and flounders at the more graceful ones her desire to succeed grows. Her desire to fit in with the older girls increases too, but as she gets better an odd affliction begins. One girl suffers a fit of convulsions, followed a day later by another, then another. Adults fear a contamination in the drinking water, but as the girls are fine afterward – although changed ever so slightly – the general concern level seems low.
Some girls are even looking forward to it happening to them.
Are the girls faking it for attention? Is something unnatural happening to them? Is it something to fear or appreciate? Holmer lets the questions hang in the air, unanswered, but answered all the same. There’s meaning here for viewers to decipher, and it adds an undercurrent of unease and wonder to the film culminating in a subtly, powerfully mesmerizing final five minutes.
The film smartly keeps viewers at the community center, straying outside only briefly for Toni’s foot-bridge and playground exercises. We hear about her home life, but we never see it or her parents. This is Toni’s tale, and the chapter of note involves the connections she’s making and the changes she’s experiencing.
Hightower is the star here, both by design and talent, and she owns every frame she occupies. That’s no small feat either as she’s in every scene. She plays Toni as confident and focused but not immune to the camaraderie of other females and the need to belong. Still, even as her attraction towards them and their routines increases she remains an individual. Torn between the team dynamic, the threat of “the fits,” and her own goals – her singular Rocky moment is a triumph – we’re left both fearing and cheering for her.
The Fits is a short film clocking in at just under eighty minutes, but it manages to be as much character study as it is coming of age story. Woven between those two, binding them together, is an important and necessary nod to young women everywhere.