While training at the gym 11-year-old tomboy Toni becomes entranced with a dance troupe. As she struggles to fit in she finds herself caught up in danger as the group begins to suffer from fainting spells and other violent fits.
Exposing her role behind the camera, Kirsten Johnson reaches into the vast trove of footage she has shot over decades around the world. What emerges is a visually bold memoir and a revelatory interrogation of the power of the camera.
The Fits is a psychological portrait of 11-year-old Toni-a tomboy assimilating to a tight-knit dance team in Cincinnati's West End. Enamored by the power and confidence of this strong community of girls, Toni eagerly absorbs routines, masters drills, and even pierces her own ears to fit in. When a mysterious outbreak of fainting spells plagues the team, Toni's desire for acceptance is twisted.Written by
A noticeably impressive portrait of a girl on the verge of her teenage years
A Cincinnati community center sees a sudden epidemic of incidents in which teenage girls start fainting and convulsing in Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits," yet "science fiction" or "supernatural" are two words that belong nowhere near this film. Instead, Holmer uses this conceit as a tool in her 72-minute portrait of a tween girl finding her way socially and emotionally.
So little of "The Fits" counts toward plot or action that you might wonder why Holmer "dragged out" what feels more obviously like short film material into a feature. Yet her patience and artistry pay dividends, at least for the open-minded viewer. The camera pierces a further layer of its subject's —11-year-old Toni — psychology, allowing the viewer to enter deeper into her point of view.
Newcomer Royalty Hightower would obviously be a candidate to get credit for achieving such a high degree of empathy, but in actuality, it's Holmer's exceptional focus on Hightower. Her conscientious effort to tell the subtext of Toni's story more than anything else results in a film that speaks rather poetically to adolescence and self-discovery.
Toni is a determined girl who understands the importance of working hard more than most. She goes with her brother to the community center each day to train and learn how to box, but she's transfixed by the girls upstairs in the Lioness dance troupe. We immediately see both the committed, tireless side of Toni and the side of her that longs to be a dancer, and so it's clear that she can dance if that's what she desires most.
The premise of a girl boxer wanting to be a dancer is a refreshing subversion of gender role archetypes, and a gentle way for Holmer and co-writers Saela Davis and Lisa Kjeruiff to let viewers know that gender identity/roles are not a focal point of their story. This is a film about a girl finding herself, period.
We get all these long, lingering, quiet moments alone with Toni in order to really experience how she deals with the emotional storm of her own desires, social pressure and the fear and panic induced by this outbreak of "fits." And there's nothing particular unique in how she copes, which is what makes accessing her consciousness, as the viewer, so effortless. The power of this particular film comes from that experience.
All that said, it's hard not to wish that there had been just a few more external factors to add tension and drama to this story, especially with a premise that could've so easily gone that route. Kudos to Holmer committing to her cinematic portrait and not caving to more typical movie conventions, but something to hook the viewer a little more would have elevated her impressive artistry.
The average moviegoer won't likely stumble upon "The Fits," so there's not a whole lot of danger in it being misunderstood and dismissed for leaning more heavily toward poetry than entertainment, but perhaps that "supernatural" premise warrants a bit of a disclaimer. Go in looking to experience what it's like to be 11 again, however, and you'll be floored by what Holmer has accomplished.
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