A psychological portrait of 11-year-old Toni—a tomboy assimilating to a tight-knit dance team in Cincinnati’s West End. Enamoured 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.
Screening at Golden Age Cinema, Sydney: From August 4
There’s nothing cute about eleven-year-old Toni (played by the wonderfully named newcomer, Royalty Hightower). A small ball of muscle and determination, she’s nothing less than fierce as she strains into frame, counting pushups and pull-ups, before donning boxing gloves and sparring with her older brother, Jemaine (Da'Sean Minor). She’s a solitary, watchful tomboy hanging onto the sidelines in the male-oriented gym at their Cincinatti community centre. But soon, Toni hears the siren call of a group of girls practising across the corridor. They’re an all-female dance battle troupe called The Lionesses, and she wants to be one of them. But what does fitting in with the other girls mean, especially when the dance leaders (older beauties with names like ‘Legs’ and ‘Karisma’) start collapsing in epileptic-style fits, and the condition spreads like contagion?
Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut is a strange, dreamy coming-of-age tale with a touch of supernatural mystery and a teasing intimation of uncanny horror. What’s going on here? Is it possession, group hysteria, or something in the water? The Fits is nothing like Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) but that film comes to mind as you wonder about menstrual stirrings of supernatural power, and also as Toni is engulfed by a group of whooping, leaping dancers running down a corridor, a laughing crowd, a powerful and maybe dangerous female herd.
The Lionesses have a mantra: ‘Stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team’. Toni struggles at first to follow the highly choreographed dance moves – her clumsy out-of-time movements are depicted unflinchingly, almost painful to watch. But she starts to make progress and she’s reassured by her new friend Beezy (Alexis Neblett, who actually is cuteness personified) that she’s ‘not the worst’. Together, the girls put on sequined leotards, pierce their ears (with an ice-block and hot needle) and paint their fingernails gold. It’s a puzzle unsolved whether this female conformity is benign or malignant. Certainly the film messes with the dominant American narrative that celebrates individualism.
The Fits boasts a spare and effectively unnervingly score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (Martha Marcy May Marlene). A soundscape laced with clapping, heavy breathing and jagged woodwind sighs accompanies Toni’s movements along the deserted corridors of the gym and the desolate urban stretches of her walk home. Cinematographer Paul Yee’s camera hugs her shoulder tightly from behind, or stays stationary while she dances and ducks and weaves, creating an impression of a psyche strung tight and hard. When Toni finally finds her groove, alone on a footbridge with only the rhythm in her head to guide her, it’s a euphoric piece of cinema that’s worth the entire runtime to experience.
Premiering at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, The Fits was developed and produced through the Venice Biennale Cinema College program, a fast-tracking micro-budget initiative for first and second time directors from around the world. Writers Holmer, along with editor Saela Davis and co-producer Lisa Kjerulff, have crafted a story that capitalises on their constraints. The limited locations, lack of adult characters and the fact we never see the kids at home effectively creates a socially contained world with its own rules and consequences. Then there’s Royalty Hightower’s knockout lead performance, leading some pundits to call this the Girlpower film of the year. She’s ably supported by the rest of the energetic young African American cast of largely untrained actors, most of whom come from the Q-Kidz, a real Cincinnati step team. Some viewers may feel The Fits fails to deliver on its promise of drama or incident, or even horror, but what’s undeniable is the intensity and mystery of the experience, much like adolescence itself.
Watch the trailer