The Fits Dir. Anna Rose Holmer

[Oscilloscope; 2016]

Styles: dance, coming-of-age, light sci-fi
Others: Girl Walk: All Day, Rize, Under the Skin

While most darlings of Sundance adhere to a precise template or battle-tested, festival audience-approved aesthetics, Anna Rose Holmer’s audacious debut, The Fits, defies both the expectations and easy categorizations that one has come to anticipate from similarly hyped indie films. It reimagines the all-too-common coming-of-age film as something of a poetic dance where rhythm and motion is not merely a form self-expression but the actual means of self-realization, a ritualistic rite of passage that jumpstarts the transformation towards womanhood. The central metaphor of the fits is blunt, yet Holmer surrounds it with such a potent sense of visual poetry and dynamic movement that the film’s general mood, driven by a wonderfully pulsating Jonny Greenwood-esque score of offbeat percussion, drones and atonal clarinets, expresses more here than any additional dialogue or plot ever could.

The Fits is remarkably tight in its focus, zeroing in on Toni, a pre-teen girl, played with a quiet ferocity by Royalty Hightower giving a performance that is far beyond her years, who trains in a boxing gym where her brother works when she soon finds herself transfixed by the all-female dance troupe, The Lionesses, practicing down the hall. The fluidity and gracefulness of the dancers plays off the harsh physicality and brute masculinity of the boxers and Toni must decide whether she will break from her brother’s care and join the so-called pack. As she begins training with the troupe, Toni takes on the dual role of active participant and disengaged observer, soaking in the strange newfound world of female empowerment she has entered while training her body to adapt to new routines and the grueling pressures of competitive dance.

Surprisingly, as much as The Fits is a dance film, it is ostensibly even more a reconfiguration of the coming-of-age film as a truly alien experience and a lyrical rendering of the body/mind fissures inherent in adolescence. The “fits” that several girls have throughout the film are clearly symbolic of a woman’s blossoming — the seizure-like symptoms, at first blamed on the gym’s drinking water, effect only pubescent girls who are then the envy of those yet to experience them — yet Holmer presents them as something otherworldly and transcendent. The mundanity of routine and the normality of puberty running its course are here conveyed in rather grandiose terms with imagery that captures not the literal truth of these universal events, but the rapturous, emotional truth buried within its unshakeable mood and dense atmosphere.

If The Fits has a weakness, it is that once it establishes its unique formal vocabulary and Toni sees the first of the “fits,” Holmer virtually repeats the pattern until its inevitable, yet beautiful and haunting, ending. Its rhythms and repetitions do however accrue meaning, particularly as Toni’s increasingly intense practice allow her to externalize her inexpressible internal world as her body and mind lead her to evolve into someone else. Its minimalist nature would perhaps make it better suited for a short film, but at 72 minutes, it still manages to mesmerize even while its duplicating its own moves. If nothing else, it introduces Anna Rose Holmer to the world as another bright young female director with a unique perspective and, especially for a debut feature, a surprisingly impressive command of pacing and tone.

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