Where do you fit in? It’s a major piece of the human psyche and it’s a question that we strive to have answered at many different times in our lives, but none is more pivotal than when you are in school and trying to find an even temporary fit for yourself. This is the basis around the new film, The Fits, a short psychological journey through the eyes of a determined but introverted soul struggling to find a sense of identity. The film is absolutely mesmerizing for a few different elemental reasons and even reminded me a bit of the Maisie Williams film The Falling from my viewing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, but in a more real and grounded way.
The film is the debut feature from first time writer and director Anna Rose Holmer, who had been in the camera department of films for over ten years, working on films like Twilight and Lena Dunham’s Spirit Award winning feature Tiny Furniture. The vision of her coming of age story has been garnering huge buzz and the accolades are just starting to stack up, already getting ten nominations at different festivals for best picture, best director and best lead actress for the focus, Royalty Hightower, and winning five of them. Could this be the James White of 2016, a film no one will hear of but, without a doubt, is one of the most important film of the year. I’m voting yes on that.
The film follows Toni, an eleven year old girl, who trains constantly with her older brother in the boxing ring, running drills and sparring. It’s evident that Toni is a total machine with the work ethic she has, blending with her grit and determination. Toni’s on a fast track to being a champion, whether it’s Olympic or otherwise, but we soon see that her heart may be yearning for something else. She finds herself gravitating towards the other side of the rec centre where The Lionesses practice, a competitive dance troupe. In awe, Toni stares at them through the window of the door.
Toni’s desire to join the troupe pushes her to take gradual steps to get to her first practice. Deciding to test some moves out in the empty gymnasium after hours, it’s evident that her dance skills aren’t as immediately as graceful as her in ring acumen. Her movements are definitely awkward and unfocused, but just like boxing, her determination is there. After the gentle prodding from her brother, Toni attends a practice and is a little shaken after getting some laughs at her first practice attempts. She ends up bolting from the practice but her learned work ethic keeps her working at her newly found passion and making a friend, Beezy, also a dance troupe hopeful, makes everything a bit easier. Then one of the dance instructors suffers a kind of epileptic seizure during a lesson and everything changes.
There’s a cadence in the sound of The Fits that moves through the visuals of the film like a blended poetry session. Toni is almost wordless through the first ten to fifteen minutes but, even with that silence, we are perched so closely to her that we get a good feel for who she is. As introverted as Toni is, we can see the subtleties of her thoughts and emotions, something that becomes more and more pronounced as the film goes on. When we get to a moment of breakthrough and triumph as she finally feels the rhythm click, the audience feels the same sense of elation, something that Holmer is able to drum into us unconsciously.
Royalty Hightower’s performance is the driving force of The Fits, much like Christopher Abbott and his close relationship with the camera was in James White. There is a veteran presence and screen command that makes her seem so much older minded and the reality that this is only her first onscreen performance ever is astounding. Like James White, Hightower exhibits a closeness with Holmer’s direction that makes you latch onto her right away and when things start to happen that can’t be explained, we worry for what may happen to Toni now that she is starting to open herself up and flourish. Toni has a character shift from static to dynamic that is all told within the same subtly expressive way.
The main focus of these, at first perceived, epileptic fits start with a fascination on the first one but as they seem to be contagious and bounce from one girl to the next, they seem to turn to a sort of thematic horror. Who’s next? Are they dangerous? These are all questions raised but never delved into but then it seems the other girls are expectant and trying to ready themselves for it. In my mind they seemed to take an almost a spiritual connotation, like a moment of enlightenment that would show them the path of which they need to go, all through dance. It’s something that makes the end of this film so rewarding.
With a fascinating and well received first feature under her belt, Anna Rose Holmer has definitely put herself on the map in the festival circuit and in critics’ minds. She has a quiet reservation that moves to the beat of its own drum and, if she continues down these small character paths, she immediately puts herself into the same conversation as women filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt or Lynne Ramsey, a nice group to be a part of. As the festival films still get their time to shine, I hope The Fits really snowballs with the appreciation it’s getting and ends up getting some love from the top of the independent voices, maybe getting that TIFF or VIFF treatment, which it’s already playing now at Vancity Theatre. This is a must see for indie fans and you’ll want to tell your friends. The Fits is a five out of five.