Nobody pays much attention to Toni. She works out near, and spars with, the boys at the community center, but she’s too young for them to pay any mind to; the girls on the dance squad don’t notice her as they peak into the boxing ring at the boys they like. But one day, she hears the music from the other side of the gym door, and when she looks inside, something captures her interest. She decides she’d like to dance too. And then strange things start to happen.
Toni (as played by the marvelous – and marvelously monikered – Royalty Hightower) is at the center of The Fits, a strange, enigmatic, and utterly riveting new drama from writer/producer/director Anna Rose Holmer. It is very much her story; basically every shot is either framed on her, or captures her perspective. It’s such a subjective experience, in fact, that no one’s really heard talking in the movie until they’re talking to her (which doesn’t happen much in the opening stretches); dialogue snatches are overheard, motivations are inferred, and the script is refreshingly short on spoon-fed exposition.
We’re not even entirely sure what pulls her into that gymnasium. It could be the pounding drums of the music they’re blasting, rattling the community center doors and windows. It could be the way they dance, particularly when facing each other – athletic, acrobatic, aggressive, all whipping hands and flipping hair, less choreography than attitude. Or maybe it’s just something about “Legs” (Makyla Brunam), the girl she first sees dancing; Toni looks at her with a kind of longing that may be admiration, or a crush, or both.
The duality of interpretations creates parallel currents that runs through The Fits, which plays like either a sports movie (Toni begins quite literally a step behind the rest of the line, but ends up dancing alone on a bridge with the triumph of a scene from Creed) or a metaphor for sexual awakening. Before the dance squad’s season is even underway, a practice is interrupted when Legs is overcome with an unexplained attack, a series of shakes and seizures that send her home sick, and spook her teammates.
This “fit” ends up working its way through the girls, one after the other, like a horror movie – or like It Follows , another film rooted in the notion of sexuality (and fear of it) made manifest. What that fine film had in abundance, and The Fits makes a point of avoiding, is explainers; there are brief flashes of clueless parents and community center leaders trying to figure out what’s afflicting these girls (is it something in the water fountains?), but no moment where Toni or anyone else figures this thing out, or how to overcome it, or notes that it didn’t start happening until she showed up, or – well, you get the idea. The picture runs a scant 72 minutes, which reduces this story to its barest elements, and that’s for the best; it’s better without the scenes we might’ve been left with, had Holmer been forced to pad it out to a more conventional length.
We don’t get those scenes because this isn’t that type of movie; it’s boldly experimental and fiercely true to its first-person perspective, which means it’s less interested in what’s causing this strange behavior than in how Toni reacts to it. And for long stretches, it’s not even a real concern – our lives go on, even in times of inexplicable crisis, and there’s a wonderful scene in the midst of it all, in which Toni and her new friend Breezy (Alexis Neblett) find themselves in the community center, all alone, after hours, and turn the night into a kind of slumber party at this home away from home. (In fact, Toni is only ever seen at the community center, never in her real home.)
If the progression of these “fits” through this group of pubescent women is akin to a slasher flick, then that makes Toni the “final girl,” which puts quite an interesting spin on its extraordinary closing sequence, which ultimately boils down to an expression ownership and agency – a conclusion that’s more interested in emotional exuberance than narrative tidiness. When I first stumbled out of The Fits at a pre-Sundance screening in January, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it; after a second viewing, I’m still not certain. But I know this much: I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Fits is out today in limited release.