An abstract portrait of adolescent emotional dynamics, “The Fits” uses precise aesthetics to convey the alienation — and longing for social inclusion — of an 11-year-old tomboy trapped between two worlds. First-time writer-director Anna Rose Holmer crafts a meticulous mood of psychological isolation and beguiling mystery through her metaphorical tale, which exhibits less interest in traditional dramatic conventions than in situating viewers in its protagonist’s particular headspace. Though unlikely to make many commercial waves, this immensely promising debut — developed as part of a micro-budget program at the Venice Biennale institute that stipulates all projects be completed in under a year — suggests a bright future for its maker.
Set in Cincinnati’s West End, and taking place almost exclusively in a few confined environmental spaces, “The Fits” opens with a shot of young African-American Toni (Royalty Hightower) doing sit-ups in a boxing gym, her face rhythmically moving in and out of the middle of the screen, staring directly at us, as she exercises. Toni’s face will subsequently continue to be framed in such a front-and-center manner — a recurring visual motif that creates the sense that Toni and the audience are watching each other, just as Toni also perpetually gazes at both herself (in mirrors) and at her peers (through door windows).
Those contemporaries are the male boxers Toni trains with at the local recreation center — including her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), with whom she helps clean the place — and the female dancers who practice in an adjacent gym as part of the championship Lioness squad. A silent girl, Toni seems most comfortable in and around the ring, although Holmer’s camera repeatedly positions her as detached from her compatriots. That visual dislocation implies that she’s not of this male pugilistic world, and it continues once she takes a risk and tries out for the Lionesses — another clique in which her more masculine attitude and comportment don’t easily mesh.
As Toni awkwardly attempts (alongside other young tryouts) to perform a complicated dance routine, and later when she finds herself separated from the rest of the girls in hallways and locker rooms (where she spies on older girls’ boy talk from a bathroom stall), Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee articulate Toni’s caught-between-two-social-spheres predicament through astute compositions rife with spatial tensions. Moreover, shots in which the camera rotates around Toni as she enters or exists a specific area beautifully contextualize her vis-a-vis her surroundings, and the kids from whom she feels so apart.
With no adults in sight (save for some out-of-focus coaches and administrators), “The Fits” functions as a dreamy, self-contained look at its main character’s efforts to transcend her estrangement. Such a quest is complicated by the fact that, after joining the Lionesses, the troupe’s members, beginning with captain Legs (Makyla Burnam) and then Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), begin falling prey to strange fainting spells. Those convulsive attacks soon become the plot’s driving force. Yet they function less as a literal mystery than as a further metaphorical gesture meant to highlight Toni’s disconnection from those around her, especially since she turns out to be the only one not suffering from this perplexing ailment — whose spasms seem like a destructive, out-of-control extension of the aggressive, confrontational dance moves performed by the Lionesses.
While only passing reference is made to the boxers and dancers’ sexual interest in each other, “The Fits” is imbued with an undercurrent of of hormones just beginning to rage, and Toni’s condition eventually comes to feel like one rooted in issues of pubescent maturation. Whether repetitively practicing a routine on a highway overpass, or merely palling around an empty basketball court with her new friend Beezy (Alexis Neblett), Hightower expresses little verbally but conveys a world of interior longing, fear, envy and hope with her large, communicative eyes. It’s a performance of unaffected reticence and burgeoning (self-)acceptance, aided by a sound design of droning noise and atonal woodwinds that accurately reflects the character’s out-of-sync mental and emotional state.
Rigidly attuned to its protagonist’s fluctuating condition, “The Fits” culminates in an explosion of hallucinatory sights that speak to both her aspirations and her growth. However, even at its conclusion, Holmer’s film refuses to provide easy answers regarding its meaning, instead using poised formal techniques to impart that which is not spoken — and, in the process, portends impressive things to come from its confident, capable director.