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Film Review: The Fits

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Oscar Wilde once compared memory to a diary we carry about with us. It is difficult to watch The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s wonderfully taut directorial debut, without carrying a part of it with you for days afterward.

Its imagery is so captivating, it’s meaning so enigmatic, and its score so beautifully haunting, that it's one of those rare films that is simply impossible to shake. At just 72 minutes it floats across the screen, almost dream-like.

The film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl from Cincinnati on the cusp of adolescence. She spends most of her time at a local community centre with her brother (De’Sean Minor), practicing boxing and tightening her muscles with a precocious level of physical discipline, surrounded by boys who are all much older than her.

Yet across the hall from this masculine world of blood, sweat, and physical aggression, a girls dance troupe named ‘The Lionesses’ trains, and whose members embody a different kind of power and grace. Toni gazes through the window separating these two gender-specific worlds. What she is thinking as she does so is left largely up to the viewer to decide; the placid face of the remarkable Royalty Hightower gives nothing away.

Toni tentatively attends try-outs that the Lionesses are holding, and despite her lack of timing she begins to train with them three times a week. The group is large and the dance is supposed to be synchronised, and she struggles at first to lock in with the rest of the girls. She seems equally out-of-step outside of practice, observing more than participating, hanging on the fringes of the group, preferring to change inside a toilet cubicle rather than in front of her peers.

Yet we see her rehearsing the dance routine incessantly, discovering the powers and limits of her own body, growing more confident in her movements. She befriends a girl her age, Beezy (Alexis Neblett), who pierces Toni’s ears and paints her nails, ushering her deeper into the feminine world that she begins to increasingly feel part of.

It's at this moment that Legs (Makyla Burnam), one of the older girls and captain of the dance team, collapses during rehearsal in a convulsive fit on the floor, thus setting off a chain reaction within the dance troupe whereby all of the girls one by one succumb to ‘the fits’. Those that have had them eagerly compare notes on each others experiences (‘what was yours like?’), while for those that haven’t the prospect of the fits is at once terrifying and alluring.

What are ‘the fits’ supposed to symbolise? A metaphor for menstruation? A first orgasm or sexual experience? A more general rite of passage into womanhood? Holmer doesn't provide the viewer with easy answers, and this is definitely one of the films strengths of this intentionally sparse film. By refusing to do all the work for the audience, we are invited to participate in construction the narrative by projecting our own experiences onto the film.

What is so refreshing about The Fits is its adeptness at avoiding the pitfalls that other  ‘coming-of-age’ films regularly fall into. The sheer terror of adolescence is taken seriously, not least through blasts of discordant woodwind which dominant the films haunting score, but Toni’s fears are more interesting and subtle than the usual catalogue of ‘boy troubles’. They arise instead from her difficulties of discovering her own identity, of battling to gain control over her body, and of trying to reconcile her desire to be an individual with her need to fit in with the group.

What’s more, Toni must work through these problems on her own. The near entirety of the film takes place within the community centre, which at times resembles a kind of self-governing teenage republic; adults rarely appear, and when they do so they are out of focus. Toni’s isolation is continually emphasised, the camera hugging tight to her throughout much of the film.

The raw, authentic feel to the dialogue is a testament to director Holmer’s decision to cast predominantly non-professional young actors, and the scope she gives them to express themselves independently of the original script. But more impressive than the dialogue is the intense physicality of many of the performances. In a world where emotional conflicts and the search for self-identity are worked out within the realm of dance, the beautiful choreography of the film is what really sets it apart; all of the joy, anxiety and fluidity of adolescence are expressed non-verbally, manifested in movement and physical self-expression of its characters.

Anne Rose Holmer has said that she sees adolescence as being "like this dance you have to learn". It's insights like that that make Holmer such an exciting newcomer. With the aid of another fresh kid on the block, Royalty Hightower, Holmer and her team have crafted a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining debut film.

The Fits is out in UK cinemas 24th February. 

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