When movie characters come of age cinematically it is typically in clear-cut narrative terms, with a stand that must be taken, or a quest that must be fulfilled, accompanied by a scene of obvious triumph that leaves no doubt of the protagonist’s emergence into adulthood. And in a way, Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut “The Fits” is no different. This is a coming of age in film, in which 11 year old Toni (Royalty Hightower), a tomboy pitched between the world of guys and girls, departs childhood and crosses the threshold of adolescence. But then, those are just story checkpoints, and “The Fits” is so much more than them. After all, when you look back at adolescence from afar, you know full well that it’s never so easy or obvious. The narrative of real life often feels less real than otherworldly, like some mysterious force has conscripted your body for purposes beyond your comprehension, reluctantly carrying you along in its unstoppable drift. Holmer, almost unbelievably, captures that sensation in this movie that barely runs 70 minutes yet still feels enormous.
Virtually all the action takes place in a Cincinnati community center that appears to essentially be governed by the many kids that inhabit its multiple levels. No adults are seen in “The Fits” and that’s crucial; this community center is a little society that the kids, unbeknownst perhaps even to them, have created for themselves. And Toni is forced to navigate it without adult guidance. Yes, her older brother works at the center, and yes, he is cordial and caring to his little sister, and even occasionally dispenses small doses of advice, but growing boys can’t fully grasp what it means to be a growing girl. And so even as Toni begins the movie almost exclusively in the presence of boys, shadow boxing and sparring in boxing ring, she flirts with another level, literally and figuratively.
Upstairs from the boxing ring Toni catches a glimpse of a few older girls performing in a dance troupe, the Lionesses. Toni joins the troupe, along with a few friends, enduring their training rigors, . These older girls, who gossip and run through the halls screaming, don’t seem like Toni, and Toni often seems wary of them, but she also seems curious about their world. Hightower is a first time performer and so she might not have the finer points of emoting down pat, but her tentative glances at the Lionesses are for real. She is not, however, as tentative in trying to get down the dance moves of the troupe, which she does incessantly, slowly getting better, even if the precise moves themselves ultimately become of less importance than the mere act of moving. Toni is frequently moving, often in harmony with cinematographer Paul Yee’s camera, which explores the seeming vastness of this community center, and even trails Toni outside, where she still cannot stop moving as she runs stairs on a freeway overpass.
In moments when Ton is not moving, the camera settles down to examine her in close-up, straight-on shots, as if burrowing into her conscious. It is unsettling, a feeling underscored by the pervasive music score, deep and droning, feeling more akin to a horror movie. And the turn “The Fits” takes as it progresses feels like something cribbed from a horror movie, as so many girls around Toni suffer seizures and fainting spells. It is attributed to tainted water, but only obliquely, and is never really followed up on. The why and the how, as the movie’s almost impenetrable structure alludes to, are of little interest to Holmer. She is interested in something more lyrical, and despite the forebodingness that creeps into this movie as it progresses, that’s what she achieves – something lyrical. This is particularly true in the movie’s closing passages, where The Fits reveal themselves as something like a rite of passage. And as such, their innate terror, the “What Is Happening?” sensation parallels the idea of them as a rite of passage perfectly. Because what is passage into the realm of adolescence if not terrifying?