For the first 20 minutes of Anna Rose Holmer’s lovely, poetic feature debut The Fits, the protagonist barely says a word. And it’s easy to imagine a version of this film in which she never speaks, and her voice isn’t missed. Few of the important things communicated in this Sundance hit are verbalized — instead, they emerge in the protagonist’s expressions and actions. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old girl training first with an exclusively male group of boxers, then with an exclusively female team of dancers. The Fits is all about her coltish, eager physicality — her attempts to turn strength into grace, the conscious ways she pushes and conditions her body, her positioning inside groups or along their edges. So it’s particularly horrifying that the film is also about a mysterious epidemic that makes girls lose control of their own bodies.
There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of The Fits, both in terms of its central metaphor — a wave of epilepsy-like attacks making the rounds through a Cincinnati athletics center — and in terms of exactly what’s going on with Toni at any given moment. Her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) boxes at the community center, and she trains with him at the gym, unintimidated by the much older and larger boys who surround her. She’s confident when she’s trading punches with Jermaine, or doing strength exercises on her own. But some of that confidence evaporates when she hangs around a practice space used by the Lionesses, a local championship dance troupe whose members practice an aggressive form of unison movement somewhere between crunk and ritualistic war dances. Their dance routines aren’t so different from Toni’s boxing, with moves focused on striking, grabbing, and stomping. But the need to operate as part of a collective, to compete by collaborating, is new to Toni. And so is the feminine company.
Viewers are largely left to determine for themselves what drives Toni away from the boys and toward the girls, given that she doesn't fully fit into either group. The way she hovers outside the Lionesses' practice rooms suggests fascination and desire, but her carefully guarded face doesn't give away whether she's wistful for female friends, hungry for a new challenge, or just bored and curious. And she doesn't explain herself out loud. When she does finally start talking, most of the dialogue is practical and down-to-earth: exchanges of information with her newfound friends Beezy (Alexis Neblett) and Maia (Lauren Gibson), or casual clowning with her brother. One of the most remarkable things about The Fits is how much it invites the audience in by not spelling out the meaning behind each moment. Holmer sometimes goes overboard with a groaning, atonal score, which feels like a garish shout for attention by contrast with all the low-key naturalism. But for the most part, she leaves it to the audience to map their own experiences on to Toni, and answer for themselves whether she's happy in her day-to-day, and what fighting or dancing brings to her.
And the same goes for "the fits," a sickness that's clearly more metaphorical than physical. Like the fake demonic possession in The Crucible, or the supposed Satanic rituals in Caryn Waechter's modern update, The Sisterhood Of Night, the fits have an eerie power over the Lionesses, as member after member succumbs to convulsions and hospitalization. And like those previous cinematic hysterical conditions, the fits only affect girls, and they seem to be passed from victim to victim through suggestion, dread, stress, and a need for recognition and validation. When survivors return to the community center to discuss their experiences, and the strange, comforting pleasure the fits bring them, viewers who grew up in female-dominated social circles will certainly recognize the way girls talk about their first periods, kisses, or sexual experiences. Like these rites of passage, the fits become about in-groups and out-groups, about who's experienced them and who hasn't.
They also become a coded way of talking about orgasm. The fits are only described in subjective, abstract terms. They take each girl differently, and they spread in spite of adults' baffled efforts to contain, control, or define them. And they strike the older girls first, with the younger ones looking on with jealousy or horror. Toni in particular wants nothing to do with them. And it's easy to see in her refusal a desire to not grow up, to not make a definitive decision between her two worlds, to not become one of the highly feminized teenagers who run the Lionesses in a swirl of tight clothes, elaborate hairdos, and brassy attitudes. It's also easy to see in Holmer's hallucinogenic images a delight in sensuality and physical experience that goes beyond the petty boy / girl mating rituals the Lionesses discuss in their locker room.
With such strong emotions controlling everything the characters think and feel, it's no wonder Toni's attempts at dialogue seem inadequate to the task. Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee substitute warm, compelling imagery of Toni working out, practicing her dance moves, or running through the darkened community center after hours with Beezy, still enjoying being a child even as adolescence and adulthood looms in the distance. The Fits is beautifully shot, with a crisp immediacy that makes the leads' dark skin look particularly lush, and that brings some sly innovation to the framing. One particular standout: a sequence where yet another girl falls prey to the fits, but is only seen clearly through the smartphone screens of her peers as they film her frightened gasps. It's yet another moment where Holmer doesn't spell out what her characters are thinking — are they voyeurs preserving the moment for later enjoyment and sharing? Are they documentarians, trying to get at the truth the adult inquiries into the fits have failed to reveal? Or are they just frightened, and distancing themselves from the victim by turning her into spectacle? By not spelling out any one of these possibilities, Holmer opens up the compelling possibility that it's all three.
Plenty of films give the viewers far more information and still wind up feeling opaque and distanced from the characters' lives. But The Fits is all about the experience of the moment, and it winds up feeling remarkably immersive and lyrical. At just 72 minutes, the film sometimes feels incomplete: It's unclear where Toni's parents are in all this, and leaving her audition for the Lionesses out of the story feels like a lost opportunity to capture a particularly important, revealing moment in her life. But what Holmer does offer is a story about suggestion and nuance, about movement and emotion. It's a narrative film, but it feels like a dance piece itself, and it's strongest in its meaningful silences.