The Fits (2016) by Anna Rose Holmer
Review by John McAmis
There’s something about coming-of-age films. All of them, from Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, tell the same story of a child (or children) transitioning into adolescence and adulthood, and all films of this genre utilize the same themes of rebellion, discovery, and inclusion. What makes this genre so exciting is that, unlike spy films or buddy cop movies or romantic comedies, every coming-of-age film is unique because there is no singular way to “come of age.” Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits is exemplary in this regard.
The film’s protagonist, young female boxer Toni (Royalty Hightower), trains with her brother in a Cincinnati boxing ring until her interests switch to the drill team, which holds practice in the neighboring gym. Toni enlists in the team as a “crab,” along with several other girls whose sense of rhythm and time is comparable to that of a baby monkey dancing to an organ-grinder. Through perseverance and hours of practice, however, the young girls improve, eventually practicing for a debut performance during the parade.
It’s during these practices that the title of the film makes itself known. Older girls on the drill team seem to suffer from an epileptic-like seizure, rendering them shaking and speechless on the gym floor. These “fits” spread like a plague among the teenagers while the younger girls of Toni’s age watch from the background in horror, but also in fascination.
Holmer’s background as a documentarian is evident in the film’s naturalness and use of real spaces to elicit a certain tone. She enlisted the local Cincinnati teens of the boxing gym and drill team as the actors, adding a level of reality to a very surreal experience. Also drawing on influences from French New Wave filmmakers, Holmer uses the handheld camera with deep focus to great effect. While Toni may be in the foreground, her countenance full of introspection and pondering, the true action of the shot occurs in the background. There’s also a striking similarity to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail with shots of the human form contorting and flailing in uncanny synchronicity — not to mention the expressiveness and freedom humans seem to achieve through dance.
With little dialogue, a smoothly tracking camera that moves up and over the sides of pools and railings, and an eerie score of a solitary, screeching clarinet, Holmer paints a quiet picture with miles of anxious subtext. Like a Francisco de Zurbarán painting, the subject is quiet and emotionless, but the uneasy stillness and calm of the picture forces the viewer to think of darker thoughts. Toni’s desire to fit into the drill team, captured through a quiet, close-up lens, makes the audience wonder what’s truly going on inside this young girl’s head…and to what length will her psychology push her to be included with the older girls?
The Fits gives the world a different coming-of-age story in a different aesthetic. It finds success in its use of real boxers, dancers, and a documentary-like naturalism. Even though Hightower has little dialogue (like all other characters), her performance is exceptional due to her steadiness and ease in front of the camera. Yet, there is still anxiety beneath the surface from her character Toni, and Hightower is able to achieve this at the incredible age of 11. The film often falters with its eerie horror-like score, which creates an odd dissonance with the more dramatic tone of the film. Ultimately, however, Holmer’s film is a beautifully shot and written coming-of-age story whose ending will no doubt spark conversation among audiences.