Anna Rose Holmer's extraordinary new film The Fits begins with a young girl whose body obeys her will implicitly. “One,” eleven-year-old Toni (Royal Hightower) counts, as she pulls herself into a sit-up in the very center of the frame. “Two.”
She works her body, grunting and gasping and twisting just a little with the effort, all the way past twenty. Then it's time to box. She spars with her older brother (Da'Sean Minor): She is a child, a disciple. She helps him clean the gym. She does as she's told, controlled and capable. This is the supple will of the athlete, taking orders from her coach and giving orders to her body. But no eleven-year-old girl will be able to control her body for long.
The Fits is brilliantly shot. It's a tactile movie: close-ups on the gold glitter dusting Toni's fingertips, shots of a boxer's teeth edged with blood, long moments as Toni plays with her newly pierced earlobe. Holmer's camera loves the specifics of her characters, the rhythms and moves of black teen girls' dancing and black teen boys' horseplay. Lots of centered framing, lots of use of the space around the screen—the places we can't see. Toni is constantly eavesdropping, staring through windows and peering through cracks. She isn't sure what she's being shut out of; and she isn't sure she really wants to know.
Hightower is glorious, all gangly limbs and chubby cheeks, showing flashes of womanhood within a girl's mind and body. The other actors are all natural and endearing, but this is Hightower's show: Few frames lack her tense, assessing stare. She's soulful and burdened, but her tough facade cracks frequently to show her joyful girlish smile.
The story of The Fits rolls out in sharply cut short scenes, with a marcato rhythm: Each vignette feels meditative, even the ones where guys are getting knocked out. The action begins when Toni glimpses a girls' dance team practicing. The little tomboy stands outside the door and watches these creatures, their otherworldly beauty and fire. She's rapt—with the first stirrings of erotic longing, with the desire to be one of them, or with what exactly, not even Toni knows.
And rapture is the key word for this film. Toni is rapt in the presence of those exotic older girls. And they begin to experience a kind of epileptic ecstasy: “the fits,” an epidemic that spreads through the dance team. When a girl gets “the fits” she shakes, she seizes, she rolls on the floor and stares up at the other girls in agony (as they try to help her, or just film her on their phones). It happens to the older girls first. They all describe it differently. It's an out-of-body experience; it's frightening; it's “serene.” Some of them start to want to get “the fits.” They want to belong and to know what it's like.
The first suspect in the attacks is contaminated water in the schools' taps, but this isn't a social-problem movie. Nor is it about mass hysteria. It does become pretty clear what's going on with “the fits,” but Holmer takes the film in a surreal, symbolic direction rather than a naturalistic one. This isn't a lesbian coming-of-age story; it's something even more radical.
The Fits is about what it means to live in what indie singer Ani DiFranco called “a breakable, takeable body.” If girls often experience the onset of puberty almost as an assault on the self, a devastating earthquake through the citadel of childhood, The Fits shows the beauty of the ruins and suggests we weren't made for wholeness. Women—and, therefore, humans, including the boys we see vomiting from overexertion or stuffing tissue up their bloodied nostrils—are sublime in our vulnerability.
The final scene of The Fits is one of the most thrilling and most woman-centered scenes I've watched in a long time. It speaks to our need to belong, our desire to choose the terms of our surrender, the losses incurred when we grow up and the glamorous strength of the adults we're forced to become.
This is a symbol-rich movie but also a sharply-observed one. The script knows when a girl like Toni will answer a question and when she'll just grin and stare. We get just hints of the girls' family backgrounds, and we don't really need more. The scenes with the dance team (“Stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team”) show the sheer joy humans find in discipline, in working and improving. The dance team has a severity that's close to hazing, but also an acceptance: Nobody gets kicked off.
There isn't a wrong note struck in this film. It is that rare creature: the ambitious, perfect movie.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C., and blogs at Patheos.