Welcome to the immediate post-Oscars cinematic landscape, otherwise known as the time where big releases are limited and one way or another, pictures made back in 2015 find their way on to the big screen for short, odd runs in British theatres. This year sees the turn of The Fits, a feature film debut for director Ann Rose Holmer that premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival and and continued to pick up steam after a successful showing at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Would the tiny budget psychological drama be worth the wait?
The Fits tells the story of Toni (Royalty Hightower), an eleven year old tomboy who trains everyday at the local community centre boxing gym with her older brother. With the first hints of puberty and independence beginning to kick in, Toni decides to break away from boxing and join the class next door, an all girls dance team that she has been watching through the window for some time. Feeling out of place at first and then becoming more confident as she makes friends and gets to grips with the modern dance moves, Toni’s new social dynamic begins to drastically change when a mysterious fainting epidemic starts to sweep through the dance team, seemingly only affecting the older, more mature girls. Part coming of age drama, part psychological thriller, The Fits is incredibly small on a technical scale, but it certainly packs a punch in terms of metaphor. The concept of unexplained fainting or fitting is one that has been long associated with groups of young women both in history and in the arts (see 2014’s The Falling for recent example), most commonly associated with stereotypes of female ‘hysteria’. In the case of this film’s narrative, the device is used as something of a divider for the girls between childhood and womanhood. As each new girl suffers an episode, they become almost deified by the the ones who have not experienced it, and that type of reaction can be applied to almost all of the stages of puberty among girls from the first one to kiss a boy, first one to start their period, first one to have sex, the list goes on and on.
What makes The Fits particularly interesting is that protagonist Toni comes in to this oestrogen heavy environment from one that was overwhelmingly dominated my men. Her tomboy attitude and physicality is shown to be at direct odds with her new surroundings, and as she fails to succumb to ‘the fits’ as the narrative progresses, the audience starts to wonder whether the epidemic really is one of hysteria like the Victorian journals suggest. On this front, the film, in my opinion, slightly lets itself down in the final act, but although the plot does not necessarily plan out in the way that I would have desired, there is no taking away the fact that the The Fits is an incredibly effective and well executed piece of female centric cinema that explores lots of universally relatable themes in a tight, succinct and really tense manner. At just 72 minutes in length, the picture is a perfect example telling a story without adding unnecessary fat and padding. Though overall screen time is tight, at no point does the narrative feel rushed or underdeveloped. Sure, the constraints of a €150,000 budget can be felt in the single setting, but rather than making the film feel idle (as Fences, at times, felt), the filmmakers instead achieve a feeling of claustrophobia that only adds to the foreboding feel of the story.
In what looks to have been her feature film debut, Royalty Hightower gives an excellent performance in the role of Toni. Something I found really remarkable about the three leading actors in Moonlight was their ability to act with their eyes, and Hightower achieves a similar feat as a young, tomboyish girl who says very little but clearly feels a lot. She perfectly captures the essence of a young person who feels the call of both sides of her personality in boxing and in dancing, but at this crucial, pre-pubescent stage in her life, is finding it difficult to fit in to either category like those around her seem to be doing. For such a young performer, Hightower maintains a gripping level of intensity throughout that really drives the film, she spends a lot of screen time alone and for somebody that age to command a viewer the way she commanded me is really, really impressive. I can’t wait to see more of her as her career progresses. Minor supporting roles are given by a host of newcomers including Alexis Nebblet, Lauren Gibson, Da’Sean Minor, Inayah Rodgers, Makyla Burnam and Antonio A.B. Grant Jr., but whilst they give perfectly fine performance, nobody in the cast comes close to the talents of Royalty Highwater.
Overall, The Fits is a real hidden gem of a drama that explores female centric issues in a familiar metaphorical way, but displays them in an interesting setting that I haven’t personally seen before. You usually get these kinds of stories in the form of a girls boarding school or an oppressed group of sisters, but the tomboyish, sporting angle that The Fits brings to the screen is one that makes the thematic content feel fresh and new. A really ambitious and captivating feature film debut both from the director and the majority of the cast. Highly recommended if you can get your hands on a copy.