There are very few grownups in The Fits.
It’s a story about the communities kids build for themselves - particularly girls. There are countless coming of age movies about boys, but this one features temporary tattoos and glitter nail polish, giggles and sass. It’s also dark and cavernous, mysterious and pulsating, with a surreal take on adolescence and what it means to grow up, grow into your skin, learn to fit into a new set of people.
I’ve completely been that girl - so determinedly wanting to graft myself into a new community, but not entirely sure how to do it. You don’t say much, but you make a few friends anyway, and suddenly you’re in.
Newcomer Royalty Highwater is the first face we see, as young Toni (just nine years old when she auditioned for the role in the film). Unlike other girls in her neighborhood, Toni spends her after-school hours doing pull-ups, crunches, and boxing in the training portion of the local recreation center. Her older brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) does janitorial work for the center, so Toni sticks around to help him mop, refill water coolers, and wash laundry. She yearns to know more about the girls who frequent the gymnasiam. They are “The Lionesses” - the local dance team that’s brought home a trophy four years running.
The older girls make eyes at the teen boys in the boxing ring through the glass-paneled doors. The little girls run like wildfire through the hallways. Tired of her routine (and, honestly, a little tired of just being one of the boys) Toni musters up the courage to join the group audition at the beginning of the year.
Toni is a quiet girl, but Highwater plays her with the honesty of youth: floating back and forth between absolute assurance, quavering frailty, and wide-eyed observance. She’s not a great dancer, but she’s strong and she practices. She’s set her mind to something, and she’s staying at it.
I get this. I know what it means to not be one of the big beautiful girls yet, curving confidently out at the stomach and rear-end as they stand in formation, ready to unleash their dance moves, to be rail-thin and about a beat behind everyone else.
After a fairly realism-grounded intro, The Fits takes a fascinating turn when one by one the older girls in the group each start experiencing a violent, seizure-like episode. At first the community is panicked. Will they be able to participate in the tournament? Will their dance captains be ok? Is the local water source contaminated? (As this is an African-American community, this one came with deep sorrow of accidental reality evoking the crisis in Flint, Michigan that came to light within the last year).
But then, as girls do, they somehow even turn this strange, inexplicable illness into a club and a rite of passage. The girls start talking about it almost like we talk to each other about menstruation: certainly it’s a little scary, but it’s inevitable, and it doesn’t appear to have killed anyone yet.
“It hasn’t happened to any of the boys,” Toni remarks to her friend Maia (Lauren Gibson) as they discuss yet another dancer rushed to the hospital.
“Yeah, but we’re not them,” Maia responds, as if Toni was silly to even try and draw that connection.
She’s right, of course. We’re not them. And so many things girls go through haven’t happened to the boys. There is something deep and fierce about girls. It’s awe-inspiring to see a film full of so many strong women dancing for their own pleasure, worrying over their own problems - and without any intervention from an outside savior-figure.
The Fits isn’t a perfect film. The sparse dialogue isn’t the most original or compelling. It certainly won’t answer all your questions, or stay put within one genre. But it’s a beautiful, haunting story from newcomer director Anna Rose Holmer. Holmer will be one to watch out for as we continue to invest in movies that really capture the essence of the human spirit.