The closest I can relate to the protagonist of The Fits‘s crossroads crisis is when I’m choosing a lazy evening’s campy entertainment, a sadly frequent conundrum. Do I want the over-the-top masculine gender performance of pro wrestling or the cartoonishly feminine gender performance of drag? This is an exceedingly trivial, inconsequential choice of which lights & noises I want blasting through my TV for an hour, but it does in a way mirror The Fits‘s central character, Toni, as she floats between the rigidly separated & gendered worlds of boxing & dance. Her decision on where to fall on that divide reminds me of my outsider’s fascination with both pro wrestling & drag, except her choice of which world to explore has much more significant implications on the trajectory of her life, her identity, and her sense of autonomy. It also leads to a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence, which is not the kind of thing I normally experience while drinking box wine on my couch.
Toni is a tomboy, or at least she’s perceived that way. Her brother trains her to be a tough-as-nails boxer at their local community center, where she silently, sternly fits in with his peers’ aggressively masculine atmosphere of blood, puke, bruises, and concussions. The gym where they train presents a literal barrier between the masculine & the feminine and Toni begins to curiously peer into the dance troupe practices that share a dividing wall with the boxers. There’s a palpable, magical magnetism to the dance team practices that draws Toni towards them (something anyone who’s enjoyed a marching dance troupe’s Mardi Gras parade routines should be able to relate to). Her brother is surprisingly supportive of her sudden interest in the dance team and sagely advises her, “The only way you can lose a fight is if you don’t get in the ring.” She eagerly accepts the encouragement & joins the team as an underling. At first she’s unsure about her assigned routines/moves except when she’s punching the air, but she eventually finds her own feet & friends within her newfound community. The problem is that as she explores this new space, that community suffers a wave of unexplained convulsions, seizures, fits. That’s when things get weird. You’d be forgiven, based on the above description, for assuming that The Fits is a fairly standard coming of age story, but the truth is it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, a uniqueness & distinction that’s often one of cinema’s highest forms of currency.
So, if The Fits isn’t a standard coming of age drama, what is it? A medical thriller? A supernatural horror? First time writer-director Anna Rose Holmer sidesteps genre classification here and aims more for an art house tone poem than a traditional A-B story structure. The point of The Fits isn’t solving the mystery of why the seizures epidemic is happening, but more negotiating how it relate sto young Toni’s newfound identity & sense of self. As she curiously gazes at the mystic power of gold glitter paint, sequin dance uniforms, and pierced ears, a new mystic power of the uncontrollable bodily convulsion arises & develops into a strange rite of passage somewhat synonymous with puberty or menstruation, but only in the vaguest of terms. The unexplained phenomenon throws an entire community into a confused state that matches the fish-out-of-water uncertainty of our overwhelmed protagonist. All of this otherworldly disorientation is intensified by an ambient, uneasy jazz/noise score and grounded in intensely still, symmetrical camera work. Also, the film’s setting is limited to a few very specific locations — mostly the community center and a yard outside a Cincinnati housing project — that gives the whole film the dreamlike POV of a child’s imagination, like a more muted Beasts of the Southern Wild or a George Washington. The near-total lack of adults onscreen (and, even more refreshingly, white faces of any age) set up the central conflict of The Fits as something Toni & her peers have to handle on their own. At first Toni’s merely learning how to divide her time between her tomboyish & more traditionally feminine interests, but that personal bifurcation leads to a much more fascinating, vulnerable leap into the unknown where she must discover her own sense of identity entirely separate from outside influence. It’s tied to her burgeoning sense of her own femininity, but encompasses so much more than that. There’s a strange, new, self-actualized power building inside her & she’s the only one who can set it loose.
Last year’s Girlhood offered a rare cinematic glimpse into young, modern, black femininity and Creed did the same for the masculine side of that coin. In just 72 minutes The Fits breaches the barriers between them using their own respective cultural markers –dance & boxing– and pushing their collective coming of age narrative structures into quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination. Besides having what has got to be the single greatest name in Hollywood, young actor Royalty Hightower is incredibly stoic & measured in her performance as Toni, especially considering her age. Even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age drama about a young girl deciding between the rigidly divided realms of dance & boxing, Hightower’s performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would make the exercise more than worthwhile. There’s something a lot more special going on here, though. As Toni becomes more sure of herself she learns to remove the arbitrary masculine-famine divides between her interests & creates her own confident space with some kind of dance-boxing hybrid (no word yet on if I’ll ever get a similar drag-wrestling hybrid in this lifetime). In these moments it looks as if she’s training for some kind of upcoming, unknowable battle, but the truth is she’s more or less ramping up for a epiphany of self-realization.
How this personal journey towards knowledge-of-self is linked to the film’s central epidemic of “the fits” is largely up to interpretation, but the two conflicts do communicate with each other nicely and I love the way Holm is comfortable with dealing in their ambiguity. A less confident work might’ve put too fine of a point on the two conflicts’ connection, but then we would’ve been cheated out of the transcendental beauty of the film’s conclusion, which will surely prove to be one of this year’s defining moments of pure cinematic pleasure. The Fits is a small production with near-limitless ambition, the exact kind of film that asks to be championed & rewards you for your full attention. Seek it out & surrender to its spell as soon as you can.