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THE FITS (2016) review

July 27, 2016

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written by: Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer
produced by: Lisa Kjerulff and Anna Rose Holmer
directed by: Anna Rose Holmer
rated: unrated
runtime: 72 min.
U.S. release date: May 25, 2016 (Chicago Critics Film Festival), June 3, 2016 (limited) and July 29, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center)

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the conversations and interactions my 10-year-old daughter has without me. As any parent can contest, she’s not with me 24/7, although she lives under the same roof as my wife and myself. I’m wondering what kind of experiences she’s having with her friends, how she is treated and how she treats others and most importantly, how she feels about it all. Watching “The Fits”, the excellent feature-length debut from writer/producer/director Anna Rose Holmer, made me think about all this even more. 

“The Fits” follows 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower), who can be found training seemingly everyday in the boxing gym at Cincinnati’s Lincoln Community Center, overseen by her teenage brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), surrounded by other boys his age.  She is petite, slender and focused as she adheres to the physical regime and she is also the only girl there. All the other girls at the after-school center, either her age or older, can be found in another gymnasium at the center, working on intricate dance moves. The older girls are part of a large troupe called the Lionesses (mostly portrayed by the Q-Kidz Dance Team) , while the younger ones observe or try-out to see if they can cut it.

 

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Toni is content hanging with the boys, but she’s become curious about these girls.  She notices them smile and gaze at the boys as they box and is engulfed by them as they run past her in the hallway, giggling and shrieking. Toni knows that she is unlike them and wonders if she should be or if she’ll have to change in order to fit in. In private, she practices the dance moves she’s studied from afar and one day she decides to actually audition. Although she’s not that great, Toni is taken in and can soon be found hiding in plain sight amongst Maia (Lauren Gibson), Legs (Makyla Burnam) and Karisma (Inayah Rodgers) and all the other girls who barely notice her.

Then strange happenings start to occur. Random girls on the team start to experience fainting spells and violent “fits” that leave them writhing on the floor. Toni and the rest of the girls witness it all and begin to become fearful and paranoid, as speculation as to why these fits are occurring spread throughout the center and the community.

Viewers will glean what they learn about Toni and her world just from watching what is offered on-screen. That may seem obvious – after all, it is a motion picture – but, its actually quite rare and refreshing to watch a film with very little dialogue and a sparse soundtrack, allowing audience perception to form based on how the introverted Toni responds to what she observes and what’s unfolding around her. Just as Toni observes, Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee (who met Holmer while she was a camera operator on “Afteschool” – another film that observes tweens/teens – and he was a gaffer) invite viewers to observe as well. What we see comes solely from the eyes of Toni. At no point do we view what occurs from anyone else’s perspective and that’s just fine since this girl is so entrancing. With this approach, Holmer is turning us into as much of a curious watcher as her lead character and as she builds the mysterious aura to the film, it’s hard to look away.

 

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The mysterious occurrences that take place in “The Fits” are certainly open to interpretation. These girls don’t really care what’s causing them, just that they’re happening and that it can happen to any of them. In that sense, there is obviously a metaphor that correlates with the adolescent struggles and journey young girls go through. Coming-of-age and peer pressure stories aren’t foreign to cinema, but Holmer hones in on the often catty and haughty behavior of teen girls without looking down on them or portraying them in a overdramatic or hysterical manner – again, what we see is from the point of view of a curious girl who is searching for an identity.

There’s a reason we rarely see an adult in “The Fits”, this is not their world. The coach of the Lionesses is briefly seen out of focus and in the background and there’s a quick shot of a parent or two, but Holmer is more concerned with allowing us to follow Toni as she tries to make sense of life.

“The Fits” may be short, but there’s some fine characterization packed into this 72 minutes. Much of that has to do with the genuine and natural performances from Holmer’s cast – which is led by the open-eyed Royalty Hightower (a suitable name), who is outstanding in a her acting debut – but these characters feel real. They act their age, often responding with mumbling one-word answers (talk to a teen lately?) and the friendships we see between the girls can run hot or cold depending on hurt feelings or supportive words. Holmer and co-writer Saela Davis could’ve given Toni and her brother a contentious sibling relationship, but seeing Jermaine encourage his sister and nudge her with teases is sweet and endearing. It’s a relationship that serves as an understated foundation of confidence that Toni can rely on. Her only other friend is Bianca, or “Beez” (Alexis Noblest), a precocious tag-along sidekick that exudes optimism, showing that she hasn’t yet succumb to the snarky sarcasm and meanness of girls a couple years older than her. But even the mean girls here aren’t that mean, thankfully. They’re cliquish and look down on the new girls, but they’re never over-the-top and often come across as just as fearful as any other peer who wonders if they’ll be next.

 

MovieholicHub.com - The Fits - Watch Movie Trailers

 

There’s also an inanimate character that makes a memorable impact in “The Fits” as well and that’s the community center the kids inhabit. It seems so big, which is how children view such places. There are always rooms to explore and sneak into after dark, rooms that are occupied exclusively by boys and rooms that are taken over by girls. I found myself noticing the horizontal beams of color (orange, purple and yellow) that adorn the otherwise bland interior walls, that wind up accenting these wonderful characters. Under overcast skies sits the center’s empty outdoor swimming pool where Toni wanders to, studying the flying birds above. It’s a real place that a soulful kid like Toni, so full of thoughts, can explore and contemplate the world around her. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they make this sole location feel so atmospheric.

I find it interesting that “The Fits” is being described as a horror flick by some. I get that, but it’s not accurate. In fact, this is a film that just doesn’t “fit” into a genre. There’s too much going on here to categorize and that’s how the best art is often identified. Still, with its moody soundtrack by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrians that feels like a looming character all its own, there’s a feeling like something could happen – something intense, maybe threatening and definitely uncertain. That kind of sums up growing pains. While “The Fits” offers subtle social commentary, it’s originality is what lingers.

The final fifteen minutes of “The Fits” is haunting, empowering and unforgettable, as Kiah Victoria’s “Aurora” crescendos. The more I think about it the more I’m impressed by it. It’s something you need to experience all on your own which is why I’m not going to describe it here. Ultimately, this is an absolutely rewarding viewing experience from a confident writer/director who trusts her audience. “The Fits” should be seen by both filmmakers and film enthusiasts who yearn to witness a unique voice in film.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

 

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