The Films of 2016: The Fits

In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends her afternoons helping her brother at the boxing gym where he works, a little slip of a girl with a face so serious it looks like it’s been cut out of stone.  In a room across the hall, members of a competitive dance team practice a hip-hop routine.  The divisions between the two spaces could not be more stark: the boxing gym is an almost exclusively male environment where teenage boys spar with and josh one another, while the high-femme world of the dancers (nearly all of whom are high-school-age girls) is one of nail polish, lipstick, and sequined costumes.  Toni stands poised between the two, gazing in at both with some uncertainty about which one she ought to belong to.  She eventually defects from the boxing gym to the dance team, where she strikes up tentative new friendships with several of the other new recruits.  And then “the fits” begin—convulsive spells that temporarily render the girls breathless, as inexplicable as they are sudden. 

The reason behind the fits is never explained logically within the film.  Members of the community speculate that they might be caused by contaminated water, though this theory is later discredited.  As presented by the film, they act as a symbol for the onset of female puberty as it proceeds to take over the girls’ bodies with a violent force.  (Afterwards, the girls compare notes about their differing responses to the experience, some expressing fear, others serenity or indifference.)  The ever-observant Toni watches and listens and waits for the onset of her own fit: when it finally happens, it occasions an eerie sort of grace. 

The Fits is a film that thematizes bodies and movement, one in which dance becomes a way of expressing physically how girls learn to drive adult bodies that they do not yet fully understand.  (It’s worth noting that none of the boys suffer from the fits; what their pubescent rituals look like is something the film leaves to our imaginations.)  As films about girlhood go it’s sui generis, mysterious and poetic, scored to punchy, prickly rhythms.  While the superficial plot details of The Fits make it sound like derivative feel-good fare, its offbeat tone and enigmatic approach to narrative take the film into more experimental territory.  It’s a coming-of-age story that dispenses with so many of the clichés of its genre that it feels curious and off-putting.  Female adolescence has never really looked like this onscreen before. 

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