We know this pre-teen is different because she listens more than she talks. Well, that’s not quite accurate: She observes. Toni (Royalty Hightower), the protagonist of The Fits, spends her after-school hours at a Cincinnati gym. Half her time there is spent with her brother in the boxing ring, where she absorbs the casually misogynistic talk between him and his goofy friends. The other half is spent peering over the ropes to the other side of the building, where a dance troupe of older girls rehearses. She wants to become them but doesn’t know how.
Not knowing is a feeling you need to be comfortable with when watching The Fits. It is undoubtedly the debut of one of those major talents who refuses to acquiesce to the audience and instead creates art on her own terms. First-time filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer has crafted a story so poetic and precise that it must be the pure, uncorrupted vision of its creator. It’s not a flawless film, but it is perfect in its own way.
Channelling the slow-burn tension of Brian De Palma or Stanley Kubrick (the camera zooms so subtly that it’s almost imperceptible), Holmer follows the quiet, diminutive Toni as she slowly, carefully, almost menacingly enters the world of the dance troupe. Her supportive brother encourages her to try out, despite her clear lack of rhythm and ability to master her own body. They let her join anyway, but soon strange things start to happen. One by one, the older girls are struck by seizures. They recover quickly, but the episodes are unnerving to all, and the troupe—which we understand as a rare escape from the more complicated inner-city world outside of the gym—is overcome with a subtle but powerful paranoia.
Except Toni, who somehow retains agency throughout. Holmer never shows us what’s behind her piercing eyes, and instead tells her story through formal composition, varying her size in the frame from scene to scene. Sometimes Toni is small in the foreground, a minor character in her own story. But this girl has power. You can see it in the occasional close-up. She burns with confidence. We know she will accomplish whatever she sets out to. So when the community determines that the cause of these “fits” is a mysterious case of water contamination, we know better. We know who’s doing it, even if we don’t know how. Even if she herself doesn’t know.
Still, this not-knowing comes at some cost, especially for the audience. Holmer purposefully keeps things vague, evoking the confusion and alienation of adolescence without ever naming its cause or effect. This will surely be a problem for some viewers, but for others, it will create an unassailable curiosity about this girl and the world—both internal and external—she inhabits. Put simply, how much you enjoy The Fits will depend largely on your comfort with the void.
The Fits opens Friday at E Street Cinema.