One of the most buzzed about entries in Sundance this year was the narrative directorial debut of producer-turned-helmer Anna Rose Holmer. The Fits won praise for spinning an intimately compelling yet eerie coming-of-age tale that uniquely captures the magic, mayhem, and burning desire for control experienced at this pivotal point of growing up.
Inspired by true events, The Fits centers on 11-year-old tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower), who fits in fine as the tag along to her brother’s male-dominated boxing classes, but struggles to find her place when she hangs up her gloves to join an all-female drill dance team, The Lionesses. Toni is mesmerized by the high school girls who flip their straightened locks and fling their arms and legs out in a powerful and violent brand of dance. She yearns to be friends and be like them, dreaming of proving herself through an upcoming competition. But a strange malady will keep the Lionesses off the floor. After one team captain then the other goes down with an epileptic fit, it becomes an enigmatic epidemic. Each practice brings a new victim, a new story of “the fits” power and cause, and a further pang for Toni, who has reason to doubt this is a real health crisis.
The displays of the girls fits feels similar to their dances, full of flung arms and legs. But instead of stomping towards each other, as if each move is a challenge, now they flail on the ground, something terrifying and somehow enviable. The mystery of the fits infects the community, isolating Toni, and compelling the audience to work out the metaphor of these seizures. When the water supply of the rec center is blamed, Toni points out with tender rationale that the boxing boys haven’t succumb, despite the same environmental conditions. To this, her yearning friend retorts, “Yeah, but we’re not them.” The rules are different for boys.
Holmer’s career began in the camera department, working as a first assistant camera under the likes of Jody Lee Lipes. Later, she’d produce Lipes’ doc Ballet 422, as well as produce, shoot, and helm her first film, the 2010 documentary Twelve Ways to Sunday, which explored the community of Allegany County, New York. Community proved to be a major element in making The Fits as well.
“(Producer and co-writer) Lisa Kjerulff and I wound up living on location in Cincinnati,” Holmer told Filmmaker Magazine, “We brought on the coach of the (Q-Kidz) dance team (Marquicia Jones-Woods) as an associate producer. We got the permission of a local community center to shoot there, and we made our process an open book. The kids (helped by choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall) participated in the choreography of the fits — it was all about bringing them into the process.” She later told MTV, “There’s a couple hundred girls on those teams in real life, and we cast 45 of them in the film, including our lead, Royalty Hightower.”
Securing a grant allowed Holmer to make The Fits in the way she saw fit. A shoestring budget bought her a lot of creative freedom, which was necessary considering the taboos of gender and identity the film touches on. As she puts it:
“Exploring gender, how we perform gender, and how gender is perceived externally is a huge theme in the film. We made a really clear, almost too-binary world, where there’s this very male gendered space in the boxing gym and there’s a very female gendered space in the dance gym, and Toni as a character is really the one who is able to move between those two spaces. Just by walking from one room to the next — nothing changing about her — she’s perceived differently…We wanted to make a nuanced portrait of what it meant to be a complex 11-year-old girl where these two gender spaces can merge in a unique way. That carries a lot of the questions about gender identity and gender performance.”
Crucial to the exploration of Toni’s journey was finding an actress who could shoulder so much screentime, and with very little dialogue. The 11-year-old Hightower makes her screen debut in The Fits, and handles the incredible weight of the film’s storytelling with awe-striking aplomb. Rather than filling Toni’s mouth with revealing monologues about her thought process, Holmer stuck to naturalistic dialogue and trusted in Hightower’s talents to communicate this introverted character’s thoughts in looks and dance alone. In some ways, it makes Toni a second mystery to be figured out within the film, a very bold move from a first-time narrative filmmaker.
Watching Holmer’s movie, I felt like I was wading into a deep lake. A few steps in, I thought I knew this place, its temperature, its rhythms, and what is has in store for me. But the deeper into The Fits I got, it dawned on me that this was something surprising, strange, and unnervingly unique from what I’d seen before. Holmer took the root of a “dancing disease” and with co-writers Kjerulff and Saela Davis, created a story that’s seductively subtle, rich with metaphor, and compulsively intriguing.