Martin Amis once wrote: “In my experience, the thing about girls is – you never know”. And how eerily suitable for a film like The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature, which sparks your interest in how unassuming its drama unfolds. We’re casually tossed into a Cincinnati recreational center that’s divided by its masculine boxing ring and feminine tumbling gym. In between we find the pre-teen Toni (Royalty Hightower) with her brother sparring in a boxing ring. At an awkward age where every action seems to possess cosmic significance, Toni looks at the young women of the rec center’s dance troupe and yearns to be part of what seems like a separate and exclusive club.
There are cosmetic qualities to The Fits that summon memories of the female-driven coming-of-age films of Céline Sciamma, most notably Tomboy and Girlhood. But as Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ unhinging score quickly suggests – you never know. Because while The Fits may ascribe to many of the beats and cues so often associated with coming-of-age narratives, there’s a mounting anxiety that, by design, is at odds with inherent reserved nature of its performances and plotting. As the film develops, following Toni as she enlists in the dance ensemble and befriends its various members, girls from the troupe take ill, convulsing and collapsing to the gym’s floor. The first of these incidences spark your concern, as it is completely in conflict with your expectations of what a film like this is going to be. But as the trend continues, with more members falling ill with seizure-like symptoms, you begin to piece together Holmer’s intentions, her commentary on the passages from childhood to adulthood that speaks volumes to what it means to be a young, black woman in America.
Seeing Holmer reveal her intentions is compelling precisely because of her smart and economical filmmaking. Consider Bensi and Jurriaans’ shudder-inducing score with cinematographer Paul Yee’s sterile depiction of a rec center to see how Holmer induces an unnerving and ceaselessly compelling tension out of her milieu. There’s a desolate, stirringly honest quality to how Holmer isolates Toni, so often emphasizing Royalty Hightower’s face in a medium close-up. We’re not merely watching Toni, but rather watching her as she attempts to make sense of the world: her dark skin highlighting her bright white eyes as the hard truths of living are exposing themselves to her. The panic that courses through her as she witnesses trauma instantly reminded me of Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie, another film that announces itself as a statement on the terrors of entering womanhood. Toni may not literally light her gym on fire, but in a more figurative way, she does.