You have to be in a specific sort of mood, and in a peculiar frame of mind, to fully immerse yourself into a film like “The Fits” and walk away feeling like you’ve just seen something special. Actually, first-time feature film director Anna Rose Holmer draws a very thin line between “special” and “disposable.” With her (undoubtedly unique) approach to the age-old genre of the coming-of-age story, she’s either showing exceptional courage or completely exposing her lack of experience. It’s a bit of both, but by the end of the film, one gets the impression that her way of getting her feet wet was to armstand dive straight into it, which should be admired even by those who aren’t enticed to follow her into the water. There’s vision here, clearly, and through the use of eye-catching frames and a standout score, “The Fits” works like magic as an experimental performance piece. As an engaging work of well-rounded cinema, however, there are more than a few missteps.
Much rests on the gaunt shoulders of 9-year-old Royalty Hightower. She stars as Toni, our protagonist, and she hardly leaves our sight for the entire 72 minutes — from the first push-up to the final look toward the sky. “The Fits” is unequivocally told from her POV, as she gradually gravitates from one end of her Cincinnati gymnasium to the other: from a world of boys and boxing to a world of girls and dancing. Her best friend Beezy (Alexis Neblett), an absolute bundle of joy, and her older brother Jermaine (De’Sean Minor), a background prop at this stage of her adolescence, saunter in and out on occasion to playfully mess with this POV, but it’s really all about Toni. Once she gets accepted into the Lionesses Dance Team — an all-girl squad specializing in competitive drill dance — Toni is determined and inspired to master the furiously choreographed movements. What compels her? Is it the distance she feels from knowing she’ll never be part of the boy’s club with her brother? Is it the idolization of the older girls who lead the team and get all the boys’ attention? It’s never made clear, which means we’re dealing with an exceptionally introverted protagonist. Given that the whole film is in her POV, I imagine this will be a deal-breaker for a lot of viewers.
Juxtaposing Hightower’s subtly naturalistic performance, are the titular fits themselves. Mysterious spasms, geared by some invisible hysterical contagion, begin to plague the dance team, creating a vibe similar to the invisible disease that plagues the teens in “It Follows.” This blend of dance, coming-of-age, and psychological horror is what gives “The Fits” its unique shine. A shine that sparkles like a diamond through the film’s fundamentally fascinating score. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ psychedelically jazzy work injects a sense of immediacy into the most regular day-to-day events. An early scene that sees Toni skipping rope and contemplating the world around her (her defining characteristic) is exemplary: all of a sudden, the soundtrack becomes possessed with what sounds like a piece of music originally recorded for a 1940s swamp-monster horror film. It’s a deeply creepy score, and incredibly engaging as it transforms into some form of electro-acoustic jazz — the kind that’s dipped two feet in acid. By far the most intriguing element of Holmer’s vision, the music stands apart from literally everything else in the film. Which is really not that shocking once you consider Bensi and Saunder’s pedigree: they are the composing duo behind atmospheric creepers like “Enemy” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” What they’ve come up with for “The Fits” has certified them, to my ears, as two of the most captivating composers in the business.
The trouble with “The Fits,” however, is that there’s not much else to it than that. As an experiment in genre mixing, an art-house curiosity, a new way of handling the grand theme of adolescence, and an example of the inherent powers a film score can possess; yes, it’s really great. But these are esoteric points of interest that will intrigue mostly those who’ve seen too many films in their life and actively seek out strange and opaque takes on familiar subject matter. The way Holmer frames certain scenes proves that she’s got major talent, but again, these are formal strengths that will fly over a lot of heads. The emotional investment, fully rounded characters, and engaging events that are needed to make the film work on all fronts simply isn’t there. Three writers (Holmer, Saela Davis, and Lisa Kjerluff) are credited for what turns out to be the film’s Achilles’ heel; and at some point on the way, it gets irreparably sprained.
“The Fits” is unlike any dance film you’ll ever see, which doesn’t automatically make it good, just different. The film suffers from being diminutively compelling throughout, regardless of how interesting Hightower’s shy, intensely fixed stare is and how deeply under your skin the score gets. Crucially, it’s the sort of film that breathes in concept and gently suffocates in realization, too internalized to move a wide audience with its subject and characters – at least not in the same way it’s clearly moved Holmer. It will no doubt hit a chord with a small group of art-house lovers, and while she’s still got a ways to go in terms of storytelling, Holmer exhibits major promise as an up-and-coming visionary. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.