Unfolding in a beautiful and slightly fantastical way, The Fits follows Toni, an adolescent African-American girl uncertain about her place in the world, as she explores what it means to feel the pressure of social norms for the first time.
At a Cincinnati community center, Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends the afternoons with her brother, training, as he is, in a boxing gym, until she discovers the all-girl dance team rehearsing down the hall. She auditions, makes the team and, as she practices, begins to unravel the rituals of adolescence. She pierces her ears with her friends in the bathroom and eavesdrops on older girl’s conversations about their boyfriends. She lets her friend paint her nails sparkly gold, only to chip it off later. She is uncertain about her place in the social world and whether or not she wants to accept the traditional markers of femininity and growing up.
One of the things that makes The Fits so special is that the film navigates its topics in such a delicate way. The moments we see feel real, unscripted. The camerawork is subtle and powerful; at times, it makes you feel like a voyeur, stumbling accidentally into a hallway where you overhear a conversation between friends that you don’t want to stop listening to. Sometimes you are looking through the eyes of characters, peeking into the gymnasium from behind glass, looking through the crack in a bathroom stall, or acting as their reflection in a mirror. With the paucity of dialogue, these glimpses into the inner lives of characters are an important way to reveal their emotional richness.
Then, we come to “the fits.” As Toni gets settled into the dance group, members of the group begin to have small, unexplained seizures. It becomes a point of drama for the group—some girls want to experience the fits, some are scared, some wonder why only girls get the fits. Although all of the girls who have had fits are fine, there is still a sense of unease, especially as it is made clear that nobody knows what is actually causing them. It is clear that the fits are a metaphor for something, but if you read reviews of the film, the interpretations range far and wide, an ambiguity that adds to the richness of the narrative rather than detracts from it. I would say that “the fits” is a fictitious marker of female adolescence that captures many of the emotions we all experience as we grow—fear, drama, excitement, uncertainty, and a total lack of understanding about what is about to happen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this film is a breath of fresh air. There simply aren’t that many widely available (commercial) films that focus so intently on navigating black, female adolescence. We are much more likely to encounter a white male coming of age narrative than any other demographic. (And certainly, there are a fair few excellent films on the subject!) This is not to say that The Fits is only good because it feels novel—the stunning craft of the film pushes away any doubt that its genre is the reason it delights. But I can only hope that the type of raw and touching narrative that is present in The Fits is allowed to flourish in our current cinematic climate, especially with digital technology making micro-budget films more and more possible.
There are many other excellent things about The Fits. If I had to name a few: its sparse but haunting soundtrack; the cinematography, crafted to feel both serious and touchingly intimate; the stellar acting performances, especially by Royalty Hightower; the script that weaves so carefully its narrative thread with precious little dialogue. But the real majesty in The Fits is that the film is a metaphor without being tired or cliché. If you’re looking for a touching coming of age tale with a refreshing and realistic take on adolescence, look no further. If you’re looking for something that makes you think but doesn’t exhaust you with excess, The Fits is absolutely your movie. This is a film that everyone would do well to see.
Oh, and I’d keep an eye on debut director Anna Rose Holmer as well. When her next release comes, I will be running to the theatre.
— Lauren Christiansen