Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Scattered across every genre and decade, growing up is one of the most constant sources of inspiration for filmmakers. The Fits – the feature debut of writer/director Anna Rose Holmer – is a coming of age drama, but not as you know it.
The film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower – definitely worth keeping track of), an 11-year-old tomboy we first meet working out with her older brother in the boxing gym. She soon discovers another world within the community centre, one in which the Lionesses – a group of competitive dancers – exist.
Immediately transfixed, Toni joins the Lionesses’ ranks and, despite being out of her depth amidst the aggression, precision and sexual power of the older girls, befriends Beezy (Alexis Neblett), one of the other new recruits. Soon, the group’s leaders begin to suffer from mysterious fits, and the affliction starts to work its way through the other members.
The film first premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival and has been gathering near-universal praise ever since, and has now found it’s way to the UK in limited release.
The Fits is mesmerising, with stunning cinematography, long shots and a central performance you won’t be able to shake. All of this carries us effortlessly through the near-silent (in dialogue, the score is fantastic) 72-minute running time. The story is slight but engrossing, with the tension of why, when and how the girls begin seizing adding a layer of palpable anxiety to the second half.
While another film may have used older protagonists, Toni and Beezy are still very much children. Less about entering into womanhood and more about the in-between stage we don’t get to see as much in our media, the film remains more preoccupied with the physicality of those older girls, never presenting the boys Toni used to hang out with as anything other that mentor figures, symbols of a more innocent time.
The blend of drama and horror is just right, never leaving Toni’s perspective in moments of nervousness, distress, or joy. We are with her from start to finish, whether it’s confusion at the more mature conversations overheard between the older girls or her ultimate discomfort when confronted with the trappings of young femininity such as nail polish, pierced ears and transfer ‘tattoos’.
When Toni joins the dance team, she’s told that it’s time to stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team, an idea that comes back later in the film to somewhat chilling effect.
There are other seemingly small choices, like only including a short sequence of moves in every shot of the film featuring dance – getting more assertive each time – or the fact that few adults are ever seen on-screen, that add an eerie, dream-like quality to everything. With it’s short running-time and singular focus, it plays out like a mood piece.
Toni is constantly watching, shut out of a world she knows she wants to be a part of, but perhaps doesn’t know why. She’s awkward and uncomfortable in her own skin, trapped between the safe space of the boxing gym and the new, more enticing but more dangerous world of the Lionesses. One particular shot sees her working this dichotomy out only with movement, appearing to switch from her old workout to new dance routine and back again.
Horror and puberty have always gone hand in hand for filmmakers, from Carrie to Ginger Snaps and beyond, but Holmer infuses The Fits with a perspective that feels simultaneously familiar and disquieting. It’s worth noting that the type of outbreak dealt with here is a real thing, and reports of these ‘fits of hysteria’ were part of what inspired the film.
The metaphor of the titular fits is never explicitly made clear, but can be interpreted as one of many physical signs of growing up. As it’s pointed out in the film, the phenomenon hasn’t affected the boys down the hall like it has the girls, and it’s referred to at one point as some kind of ‘boyfriend disease’.
For its unique take on the coming of age tale, and as a showcase for new talent Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits is a must-watch and worth seeking out. You’re unlikely to see anything else like it this year.
The Fits is in selected UK cinemas now.