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Will Harrison: “Fits” and Starts

Tracking a young girl’s transformation.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/thefits_still_01.jpg
Royalty Hightower as Toni in Anna Rose Holmer's THE FITS.
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

by Will Harrison

It is clear that there’s something eerie about The Fits from its opening scene, in which an eleven-year-old tomboy named Toni (Royalty Hightower) repeatedly hoists herself from a boxing mat in a series of sit-ups, her voice whispering a mounting tally over the percussive reverberations of a distorted heartbeat. As the shot stretches toward a full minute, Toni’s expression becomes increasingly strained with each thrust, and the accompanying score drifts into a disconcerting peal. From this scene alone, viewers can tell that this coming-of-age-tale will be more immersive and forthright than most.

Almost all of the movie’s action unfolds in and around a community center in the predominately African-American West End of Cincinnati, and the ensuing scenes repeatedly show Toni alone, whether folding laundry, pushing a jug of water down the hall, or hauling bags of equipment as throngs of energetic peers rush past. Aside from her older brother Jermaine, with whom she practices, bickers, and commutes home, Toni appears completely isolated, silently going about her routine with eyes wide open. According to first-time director Anna Rose Holmer, “We decided, from the script phase, that this was going to be a deep exercise in placing the audience in one girl’s point of view. Every creative choice we made was filtered through that decision.”

This approach makes it feel as if we have been granted total re-admission to childhood, a stage of life that is as confining as it is exhilarating.

This approach makes it feel as if we have been granted total re-admission to childhood, a stage of life that is as confining as it is exhilarating. Holmer establishes a world where children are left entirely to their own devices, and where—for Toni at least—sight is as powerful as speech. The community center, with its restricted environs, functions alternately as a claustrophobic purgatory and a wondrous hall of mirrors, but remains throughout an environment where Toni can examine herself and those around her, teasing out the idiosyncrasies of adolescence.

Hightower’s face—intent, still plump with baby fat, and incessantly adaptable despite its general seriousness—is repeatedly framed by the camera of cinematographer Paul Yee, a technique that compels the audience to invest in Toni before she’s said hardly anything at all. While occasional arcing tracking shots give us a sense of what she sees with her powerful gaze, it is just as thrilling to watch fear, jealousy, desire, and curiosity flicker in her guileless eyes. Early on, we follow her down a hallway towards the other side of the gym, where the Lionesses, an award-winning team of dancers, are practicing. As Toni peers through a narrow window, it is instantly clear that she dreams of exchanging the brawny violence of boxing for the frenzied yet refined movements of the dancers. The subsequent tryout she attends feels like an initiation into womanhood and an attempt to leave behind the isolation of the self in quest of the cohesive reassurance of a collective.

Of course, this sort of transformation never plays out as fluidly as it might, despite Hollywood’s tendency to depict athletic achievement as an easy fix for social exclusion. Though one of the Lionesses’ captains instructs each initiate to “stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team,” it is impossible to overlook Toni’s distinct uneasiness with the sample routine that follows, her movements rigid and delayed aside from a featured double jab combo. After glancing around at her peers as if in search of help, Toni slinks away from everyone else, mortified by her failure to keep up. Even in a group, she learns, you dance alone.

During the next practice we finally witness the terror that the isolating camerawork and discomfiting atonal orchestration have obliquely forecasted: in the middle of a run-through, one of the Lionesses’ captains falls to the ground, writhing and gagging in the midst of what looks like an epileptic seizure. One by one, each of the team’s older members succumb to these mysterious, untraceable ‘fits,’ and though Toni views them with the same dread and confusion as the audience, the others eventually envision them as a right of passage, something to be embraced as much as feared. Physically, the writhing induced by these spells appears as a more spastic extension of the Lionesses’ signature gyrations, only enhancing the mystifying power they possess.

Toni’s differing attitude emits not only from her comparative youthfulness but also from a psychological depth that, while difficult to fully fathom, serves as the film’s greatest asset. Though Toni’s reticent nature lends her actions an air of mystery—we are not sure exactly why she leaves boxing for dance because she never really talks about it—her expressive physicality suggests a range of potentially conflicting motivations, prompting speculation and consequent emotional investment. Though she has exchanged one homosocial space for another, Toni doesn’t necessarily find the female collective to be a more comfortable fit than the otherwise all-male group of boxers. Both femininity and conversation are foreign to her, so it is difficult for her to relate to the way the other dancers eagerly relay their convulsive experiences to their spellbound peers. Not yet interested in the hormonal cat-and-mouse that the older boys and girls engage in, Toni resists being boxed in by gender boundaries and maintains a strong connection to and seeming pre-nostalgia for her ever-vanishing childhood. While many of her teammates practice in skin-tight synthetics and carry themselves with a sexual ferocity borrowed from much older role models, Toni dresses in loosely draped sweats and only seems to notice her own lithe frame when one of the captains remarks on it with considerable jealousy.

The fact that the spells only afflict the female dancers underscores the arbitrary yet binding nature of anatomy, while also illustrating why gendered group dynamics can come as a comfort.

The fits, with their metaphorical correlation to menstruation, orgasm, and loss of control, constitute the dramatic fulcrum of a movie possessing a clear corporeal obsession. No matter how she feels about her oncoming womanhood (and there certainly is ample evidence that she anticipates it with as much awe as bitterness) Toni will definitely experience the physical changes that are already underway for many of her peers. The fact that the spells only afflict the female dancers underscores the arbitrary yet binding nature of anatomy, while also illustrating why gendered group dynamics can come as a comfort. In accordance, Holmer charts Toni’s exploration of her own liminal standing largely through physical action. Sometimes being caught in the middle is exhilarating: one especially memorable scene shows Toni and her new friend Beezy darting about the deserted community center in their glittering team uniforms, simultaneously imitating the team’s cocky veterans while giggling like the children they still are. More often though, movement operates as a means of staving off boredom: much of the film is devoted to the “down time” when these developing children must fend for themselves, whether dancing in the laundry room or distractedly running a stick across a chain link fence.

These moments of passive exploration toy with the notion of control: while we can use our bodies to perform a multitude of actions, they are also taking us for a ride beyond our power. Though there is a recurring sensuality in the way Yee’s camera follows the characters’ forms across the screen, several omens also allude to the fallibility and decay of the physical self. When Toni scrapes flecks of gold fingernail polish off her nails or peels a temporary skull tattoo from her bicep, flesh wrenching with each tug at the rubbery membrane, it is hard not to consider how fragile humans are, how life itself is a tenuous process powered by the mysterious interactions of fallible organs. And the images of dancers being measured for their uniforms or boxers stepping onto the scales for their weigh-ins take this vulnerability one step further: though the film handles race so forthrightly that it often feels like an after thought, during these scenes the viewer is prompted to confront the history of the black body as a commodity, whether within the context of slavery, prison systems, or professional sports. When, at one point, Toni calmly pierces her own ears with a sanitized sewing needle and then vogues in front of an unseen mirror, treating the audience as if we were reflective ourselves, it feels as though we have witnessed a quiet yet radical reclamation. As Toni admires her appearance, tilting her head gently and running her hands over her brand-new earrings, we see a child not merely unburdened by race and gender, but emboldened by them.

Even the film’s location contributes to its understated commentary. Though seemingly inconsequential, since pretty much every scene takes place inside or nearby the community center, Cincinnati proves to be a rather stirring context for the ensuing action, given its antebellum status as a destination for free and escaped blacks who had crossed the nearby Ohio River from Kentucky. There are also hints of the messy and often disheartening reality that has played out since that period of mythic promise: several scenes show Toni and Jermaine heading home to what appears to be a low-lying public housing unit, and initial speculation points to contaminated water as a cause of the fits, echoing the ongoing Flint crisis. As in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, also set in the Queen City, supernatural elements creep into the context of black life, jarring for their eerie, inexplicable nature yet not nearly as horrifying as the atrocities of the history they call to mind.

When Toni scrapes flecks of gold fingernail polish off her nails or peels a temporary skull tattoo from her bicep, flesh wrenching with each tug at the rubbery membrane, it is hard not to consider how fragile humans are, how life itself is a tenuous process powered by the mysterious interactions of fallible organs.

Yet for our Toni, the most important environment is the one that she has created herself. In making a child’s evolving psyche the primary focus of the film, Holmer encourages viewers to reflect on their own nascent selves and to reevaluate a society that is all too often warped and uncompromising. (“They look like astronauts,” one of Toni’s friends says of the workers investigating the center in HAZMAT suits, her tone expressing a complete indifference to adult anxieties.) Thankfully though, these nudges towards reflection are gentle, the artist being confident that greater themes and overtones will affix themselves to a story presented frankly and without narrative manipulation. Toni’s world is so encompassing and aesthetically cohesive that audience members might momentarily overlook the quiet rebellion of a movie that takes a child’s consciousness seriously.

Toni’s race and gender only contribute to our awareness of how fragile her prepubescent world is, and to our fears that that world may ultimately be punctured by factors beyond her control. Yet this delicacy helps bring her story into the realm of the universal: along with being a black girl, Toni is a tomboy figuring out what it means to become a woman. She seems to see things differently than most children—or maybe she doesn’t, instead functioning as a proxy for each of us ex-children. Regardless, thanks to Holmer’s vision and Hightower’s performance, everything she sees or does becomes engrossing, whether she is scoping out her future teammates or hurling a basketball against the wall. We just want to go back to that world she briefly occupies, to see it the way she does once more. “It’s like time stops, and you’re just floating,” one of the Lionesses says of her experience with the fits. Fortunately, Holmer’s film, like all genuine art, allows us to briefly return to that stopped time.

William Harrison writes about architecture, literature, and the visual arts. He is currently an editorial intern at Guernica.

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