Directed by Anna Rose Holmer
The Fits is a very personal film, a coming of age story set entirely in or around a local community center where 11 year old Toni (Royalty Hightower) trains as a boxer alongside her brother before aspiring to join a dance troupe, whose music calls to her through the walls of the small center.
Everything about this film feels very intimate, from the camerawork to the score and even to Toni’s own chosen silence. She hardly speaks, let alone smiles, and she chooses to express herself through physicality. She is a skilled boxer, from what we see, but this is clearly a man’s world which she is only taking a small part in. The dance troupe, filled with girls her own age and a little older, represents a bigger community to which she can be accepted. Toni’s steep learning curve only makes her journey more engaging.
The film is about growing up, though in a fairly abstract way. Toni’s silence feels like that of a wounded animal. She approaches everything delicately, and all she wants is to be a part of the group, rather than to stand out, which she was as a female boxer. At some point, though, other dancers begin having seizure-like episodes, and no one knows why. It becomes more and more clear that these episodes, or fits, are limited to the the girls, and specifically to the dancers. These moments, at first shocking, are soon presented as spiritually enlightening.
Toni and Beezy talk about what the fits could mean, but when Beezy and another girl have their turn spazzing out, they dismiss Toni because suddenly she is ‘other’ to them. The fits, then, is a right of passage, one which Toni has not yet experienced. After some more silent reflection, Toni readies herself for her own ‘fit,’ which will be unique to her like they are to everyone else.
As Toni and the other girls train for the upcoming dance competitions, they repeat the same exact dance, over and over again. The film, and the troupe, is about fitting in and doing everything exactly as it should be done. But the ‘fits,’ when they occur, are all unique to the person undergoing them. They are themselves small performances which the girls act out unconsciously.
The film ends in a beautiful sequence as Toni walks into practice, but her feet begin to float off the ground. The other girls look on in shock or awe as Toni performs her unconscious, unique routine. As the music plays (“Aurora” by Kiah Victoria, https://vimeo.com/120446495), we see a series of shots of the entire dance troupe, in uniform, performing their routine. It’s the first time we’ve seen them all together as they stride forward, in unison, each one with a smile plastered on their faces, including Toni. In these shots, Toni dances as well as anyone, finally on their level after spending so much of the film trying to memorize the simplest routines. Back in Toni’s ‘fit,’ a smile crosses her face, even despite the unconsciousness, and the film ends.
This film is shot with a lot of close ups and medium shots, preventing you from seeing the wider picture. This feels like a common trick in low budget, independent films, but the camera never felt like it was hiding anything about the production design in The Fits. We know the world Toni occupies because it’s so small and we’ve seen it previously. The camerawork, instead, often spends time on the subject before moving slowly around her, so that there is a clear visual progression within a single shot. In one instance, we see Toni from the side, alone, as she watches older dancers practice their routine. Then the camera slowly pans left around her so that when the shot ends, Toni is framed perfectly in the middle of the shot, surrounded by other girls her age, and the dancers are in teh background. What starts off as a simple shot ends with multiple layers.
In another shot, when Toni has not yet chosen to join the dance troupe, she trudges through a hallway, carrying equipment to her latest boxing session, while the exuberant dance team, fresh off some kind of victory, races and bounds through the hall all around her. It’s a long shot in which Toni’s eyes remain glued to the floor. In the span of a single shot like this, the camera and the characters starts in one place, and ends in another, making the feeling of growth or atrophy much more emphatic.
In this way, a lot of these shots feel strained, like a sense of growing pain familiar to a child Toni’s age. Given moments seem to expand or constrict, like she has been dunked in water or is learning to breath for the first time.
Finally, the dance routines themselves are almost mesmerizing, first in their flaws, and later in their inspired unity. In an early moment, we see Toni and a few new young dancers utterly struggle with the routine they will eventually have memorized by the end of the film. The way the girls each uniquely fail is both entertaining and endearing. Toni, for one, emphatically punches the air during part of the routine, having got that part down from her boxing days, but then she looks like a horse learning to walk in other parts of the same routine. This sets us up, of course, for the end, when we see all the dancers performing as one.