The Fits | Anna Rose Holmer | USA | 2016 | 72 minutes
Edwanike Harbour caught up with the third and final theatrical screening of The Fits in Madison. She argues that Anna Rose Holmer’s enigmatic directorial debut vividly illuminates the experience of adolescence and girlhood.
Screened at WUD Film, Union South Marquee Theater, September 15.
Anna Rose Holmer delivers a promising directorial debut with The Fits, a spellbinding look at the wonders and pitfalls of adolescence in a struggling Cincinnati neighborhood. The intimate look at the life of a pre-teen girl recalls Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, but the ambiance and tension will leave you on the edge of your seat.
Young Toni (Royalty Hightower) takes boxing lessons alongside her older brother at a community center gym after school. She is tough, yet tender. Her thin, wiry body has not quite blossomed into full blown womanhood. This does not seem to be an issue for her until she notices the Lionesses, a competitive dance team comprised of middle and high school girls who rehearse in the same community center.
The Lionesses often battle one another with their own choreographed dance routines; finishing moves include a well-intended chest bump to show who’s alpha. When Toni thinks no one is looking, she tries to dance and even battle a phantom opponent in the gym.
Toni takes a chance and shows up for tryouts. In a hilarious scene, the younger group of girls line up to perform one of the dance routines, the Clap Back Call, which is supposed to be an entry level move. None of them are in sync but they try in earnest as they flail and flop about. Toni is competitive and determined not to give up so she sticks with the dance team.
During one of their practices, some sort of seizure strikes a team captain as the girls look on in horror. Over the next few days these mysterious fits strike more girls with convulsions and choking.
Holmer trusts her audience and leaves the fits open to interpretation. One could argue the title is a little on the nose as the film clearly captures the girls’ struggle to fit in. Early on, one of the captains tells the newbies that they can no longer think like an individual. They must think as a team.
Only the older girls get the fits. Could this be a parable for the onset of menses? In a scene all too relatable for some viewers, Toni watches the girls changing freely in the girls’ locker room. Some of the girls definitely hit puberty before others. Toni opts to change in a bathroom stall to hide her small, androgynous body while two of the older girls put makeup on and gossip about boys in the mirror. Toni may be fearless in the gym with the muscular older boys, but she cowers in the stall amongst the Lionesses.
As Toni tries to fit in with the Lionesses, she applies nail polish and pierces her ears on her own. As more and more girls succumb to the fits, Toni is determined not to let this happen to her. She may not want to hang out with the boys all the time, but she is not quite ready to make the transition to womanhood either. Even the earrings become infected and she desperately tries to chip the gold nail polish off.
While administrators struggle to determine the cause of the fits (they even question the water quality in the building), some of the girls appear to want the fits to happen to them. Some of the older girls stand around and describe in detail what it was like for them the first time.
As in Girlhood, every time we see Toni make a new transition, the score becomes pulsing and penetrating. Some scenes evoke atmospheric horror films. The transition to puberty and the predatory atmosphere of adolescent school children can be horrific for some, especially those who don’t fit in or find themselves betrayed by their own bodies. While the final scene puzzles some audience members, I thought Holmer closes the film brilliantly through the eyes of young Toni whose voyage is coming to an end and beginning at the same time.
We all can connect to some aspect of Toni’s experience, which I believe makes the film an important one. The Fits makes social identity salient to increasingly wider audiences. And in its own enigmatic way, this is one of the more accessible films about adolescence to come out in a long time.