When Grail Moviehouse alerted me to The Fits, I had no idea what it was and had never heard of it. (That’s not surprising. I tend to avoid festival “buzz” as it seems unrelated to reality.) Then I saw it was being distributed by Oscilloscope and groaned because my experience with films bearing their imprint usually ends in a groan and I thought I’d get it out of the way. It was a waste of a groan, since it turned out that I genuinely liked The Fits. That, however, does not alter the fact that I really don’t know what to quite make of it. Worse — for someone in my position — I don’t know what to say about it.
You see, The Fits resists being easily categorized. I called it a drama on the line where we indicate genre. Yes, it’s a drama in the sense that it’s not a comedy, but it is also a kind of musical. There’s even a truly singular production number — one that might mean several things, or maybe nothing. Mostly, it’s a weirdly poetic — maybe even metaphysical — character study of a young girl, Toni (Royalty Hightower, a truly amazing newcomer), perched on the edge of adolescence. She’s presented in a coded fashion as a tomboy who is mostly interested in learning to box with her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), at the community center in which most of the film takes place. But that changes when she gets a look at a dance team called the Lionesses. Seeing them transforms her world and opens up a new one — a world of motion, color and rhythm.
But fitting in is not easy, not in the least because her training in boxing tends to make her want to move in jabs and punches. Then the question arises, as it usually does at that age: How much of herself (or what she views as herself) is she willing to lose in order to fit in? And then there’s the other side of that coin: Is she losing herself or finding herself? Which is which? Well, Toni does pierce her ears, start using nail polish and make friends. And she improves — modestly — at dancing, until one day (in an astonishing little scene) it all comes together for her as she walks across a bridge.
In the midst of all this (which may or may not raise The Fits a notch above so much indie fare) is the seemingly side-story about an outbreak of unexplained and apparently inexplicable seizures or fits. (It’s not clear whether these are the “fits” of the title or whether the title may also refer to the broader question of fitting in.) There is an inescapable similarity between this and the fainting epidemic at an English girls school in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014), but I tend to think this is coincidental. Certainly, nothing else about the two films is even remotely similar except for the fact that the causes of the incidents aren’t revealed in either case. But here, the fits might represent several things, including the change from childhood to adulthood, both physically and in becoming one’s own person.
Here’s the thing: All of these undercurrents are what I am reading from the film. Almost none of this is stated. It’s barely even suggested. The sense I am getting from the movie comes from Holmer’s meticulous camera placement and the performance of Hightower, who barely speaks for the film’s first half hour. Now, I am generally leery of praising children’s performances for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is the audience and critic tendency to think that staring blankly into space is somehow profound. I have no such reservations about Hightower. Her face gives off an almost preternatural sense of comprehension. She doesn’t act so much as she reacts — with a slyness that is quite remarkable. She has completely mastered the art of actually listening to what the other actors are saying as if she’s hearing it for the first time. It is, frankly, quietly breathtaking. I still don’t quite know what to make of it all, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Not Rated, but contains nothing objectionable.
Playing at Grail Moviehouse.