Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits (2015), is one of those movies wrapped around an impossible-not-to-speculate-about mystery that seems to destine it for cult status.
Sitting comfortably between realism and allegory, the movie is negative capability at its finest. It starts with Toni, a tomboyish 11-year-old girl who is seen training fiercely with her older (but still teenage) brother to be a boxer. They are inside a gym that seems either to be part of a school or a community center, and they are both Africa-American (as is virtually every character in this movie).
One day Toni becomes intrigued by girls training to be dancers in an adjacent gym room, and when she decides to try out for the dance team. She is not a very good dancer at first, and she is clearly intimidated by the slightly older girls, who in addition to being much better dancers are also much more accomplished in the ways of hair, makeup, fashion, and other forms of beauty that make up a big part of the adolescent female identity. Toni is clearly intrigued (and even begins making some attempts to emulate the older girls), but she also feels the pull of her brother as role model, and still very much feels more at home in the boxing ring than n the dance floor.
The Fits seems to be headed in a clear trajectory: it will map the push/pull of masculinity and femininity in a girl’s life as she discovers her adolescent identity. And indeed, just as this movie seems to be slipping into complacency, Holmer throws us for a loop: in the middle of practice, one of the dance team’s leading girls is suddenly thrown into a seizure. 911 is called and she is carried off on a stretcher.
As Toni and some other girls her age continue to battle the questions that come with incipient adolescence, the outbreak of what is termed “the fits” continues. One by one, each of the older girls experiences her own seizure. Toni and her young friends can only surmise that they are next, and, right on schedule, one by one they experience their own fits. The movie concludes with an eerie, musically choreographed, slow-motion, and quasi-first-person point of view scene as Toni—who is last of all—finally succumbs to the fits.
If I have abandoned my usual rule of avoiding spoilers and summarized the general plot of The Fits, it is only because I have little doubt that knowing what happens in this film cannot undermine the strangeness and mystery of seeing it and the pleasure of attempting to figure it out. One likely explanation for these seizures—mass hysteria—is the one that Holmer herself said intrigued her to originally create this film. Of course there are many other plausible explanations, and part of the fun of the film is mapping its allegorical surface onto whatever you are bold enough to argue for. Ultimately, what makes The Fits such a success is that this central mystery is in service to expanding the film’s interpretation of Toni’s life and the situation of herself and her friends. Holmer put it well in an interview with Vogue:
You were inspired by real examples of these fits of hysteria. Any in particular?
I was doing research, and one of the stories that came up was about a more recent case. I started to think back on historical cases, like the dancing disease. As I researched, a pattern emerged. It was not exclusively female or adolescent, but that was the trend. I started to think about why.
What was the dancing disease?
It was in the Middle Ages, I think in mainland Europe. Hundreds of people were struck by this mania. It was really fascinating to think about dancing, which is such a powerful intentional release, being something uncontrollable, from this other area of consciousness.
I think that the dancing disease may have actually been poisoning. But some people who weren’t poisoned also came down with symptoms, because of how we look to each other. It’s why we smile when we see someone else smiling. We want to belong. There’s something really powerful and simple in that.
This is not a horror movie, but you co-opted horror tropes (movies like Carrie came to mind).
Why lend that element of creepiness to what is ultimately, I thought, a very good-hearted movie?
We’re saying that there is power in collective identity. And it should not be conflated with conformity. There is that fear, though, and it’s real. What Toni is struggling with is fear of herself. Not knowing her own body, desires, insecurities, limits. That’s what adolescence is about. It’s pretty scary.
The entire film is really about putting the audience in Toni’s headspace and physical bodily space, and that’s fraught with anxiety and tension.
In other words, to only imagine this film as a sort of poetic allegory would be to shortchange it. The Fits has a very strange texture: for one thing, it almost exclusively takes place at the gym. Although a few parents are mentioned, we never see any of the children’s family or authority figures (there are one or two shots of administrators, but that is it), and any vestige of life outside of the gym is almost totally effaced. In addition to that, the dialogue here is very minimal, in particular Toni’s dialogue (she is a remarkably shy, quiet girl), and what replaces it are the beautifully kinetic movements of her and the other children’s bodies throughout the movie. This is all toward creating Toni as a fascinating and singular character, one that is intriguing enough to hang the movie on and that defies the stereotypes that film generally brings to child stars (particularly ones who are members of disadvantaged minorities). While the film does not ignore these aspects of Toni’s character, it also does not reduce Toni to them, letting the talented Royalty Hightower instead inhabit Toni as an individual person who communicates her character with her entire physical presence.
The film also has a very pleasing visual texture. For a movie that largely takes place in a handful of rooms and hallways, Holmer manages to keep the imagery fresh and surprising. She gives Toni rich spaces to maneuver through, and her camera manages to let her and the other characters define these spaces with their movements without over-embellishing what is happening on the screen or otherwise getting in the way.
The “talked about” central aspect of The Fits will, of course, be the titular fits, but there is very much else here to see this central mystery through. And it is these other layers of complexity that ultimately make this movie more than a typical, B one-trick-flick and that make these 72 quick minutes watchable again and again.
The Fits was made on a very tiny budget—reportedly just under $170,000—and one could very easily see this film alongside such other minimalist cinema, such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000 in 1991), that allowed original, quirky, and idiosyncratic directors to establish their name in film circles and gain access to greater and greater sums. I very much look forward to seeing Holmer work on a larger and larger canvas, and I will greatly anticipate what she does next.