Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
For much of its running time “The Fits,” the first feature film from writer-director Anna Rose Holmer, is a sensitive and nicely underplayed piece of naturalistic humanism. Holmer’s camera follows 11-year-old Toni (the bracingly earnest Royalty Hightower) around her urban environment, keenly observing her gradual transition from a tomboy into a young woman. Toni, who is black, is attached to her older brother. He teachers her boxing, and it’s clear that she loves its physicality; it allows her to externalize her inner self, to discover herself through movement in a way that’s natural and unmediated. But she’s on the cusp of puberty, and when she spies a group of girls practicing dance in her neighborhood rec center, she can’t help but be captivated. The girls don’t move as the boys do: they wag their bottoms and sass provocatively between routines; they’re knowingly sexual. Suddenly, her brother and his boxing friends seem a little loutish. Nevertheless, as Toni practices her dances, she inserts boxing moves when she’s not sure what comes next. You can see how one set of skills informs the other.
Holmer, who is white, pokes around urban black culture with the acuity of an ace documentarian, and she doesn’t try to mask her otherness (she also doesn’t make a big deal of it). You can feel her approaching the material from the outside, nudging it only sparingly, hoping to avoid spoiling its vitality and independence. The black kids move and speak and behave like black kids (to a white sensibility they’re a little exotic), and Holmer’s unwillingness to comment or impose on them frees her observations so that they occasionally exhibit that rare balance, evident in the better Neorealist pictures, of the poetic and the commonplace.
Holmer exerts a frightful degree of control. Visually, rhythmically, and tonally every element in the picture is arranged just so. At times this is a problem: there are moments where the movie feels nailed down and consciously tony in that deadly indie-drama way. But more often than not its stylistic flaws (I didn’t care for the eerie, discordant score) are redeemed by the content and by Holmer’s aesthetic instincts. The latter yields some amusing and unusual images: a girl’s rainbow-stockinged legs extended into the air as she spins on a chair in the lower right corner of the frame, out of which she occasionally drifts; an overhead shot of a pizza, hands darting in to dismantle it in the brusque and expert manner of boys. It also provides scenes that seem pulled from some repository of shared childhood experience: a fraught attempt at ear-piercing; a tentative excursion into a darkened gymnasium. It’s to Holmer’s credit that these moments neither announce themselves nor wallop you with meaning; by the time you become conscious of their artfulness they’ve passed.
“The Fits” equates dancing with the physical self-awareness that comes with awakened sexuality. As long as it plays on that theme it remains a canny evocation of the physical and emotional turmoil of puberty. But when Holmer attempts to tie this idea to an ideological premise she stumbles. The screenplay, by Holmer and two other writers, urges us to see sexuality as a subjugating force; that is, as a force that is better transcended than mastered. As the girls in Toni’s troupe discover boys, and take their first steps towards sex, they are afflicted with seizures — the fits of the title — that, like deaths, remove them from the flow of the story. These episodes of paralysis, involuntary and uncoordinated, are subversions of the dances the girls have been practicing. As such they come off as rebukes, as punishments for behaviors we’d initially taken as productive and healthy.
The fits don’t affect the movie’s boys; they’re a female-specific malady, a kind of symbolic rape. And because Holmer declines to deal with sex directly (the girls’ sex talk is weirdly suppressed; even the allusions are alluded to) a distinct whiff of puritanism becomes detectable about an hour into the picture. This same whiff — the scent of sexual dread — was sensible in the 2014 indie darling “It Follows,” in which teens who dared to fornicate were stalked and murdered by invisible bogey people. But “It Follows” was a horror movie; anxiety and cruelty are endemic to its genre. Cosmic vindictiveness of this sort is much harder to accept in a slice-of-life drama. I imagine some will praise as novel Holmer’s introduction of horror elements to the coming-of-age story, but I don’t think “The Fits” works as horror. It’s far too objective and externalized to generate existential dread, and the events in the movie that might be taken as horrific tend not to amplify the characters’ predicaments but rather to pull them down to the level of political commentary.
The movie’s low point is a scene in which Toni, after removing her earrings (relics of her conformance to traditional femininity), confronts her peers and levitates. The moment, which tilts the film in the direction of magical realism, undermines the earthiness and humanness of the surrounding material (it makes even dancing seem passé), and it states what I take to be Holmer’s thesis: that only by separating herself from society, from shared experience, from Earth itself, can Toni arrive at her full potential. Of course, in 21st-century America, “being yourself” is more than just a mantra, it’s something like a statement of principle. But I wonder: If being yourself entails a rejection of everything natural, up to and including gravity, what’s the point of being someone at all? The movie left me feeling depressed.