Screening in Belfast this month, this adolescent dance drama eschews coming-of-age tropes in favour of a more unorthodox yet fascinating slow burn
Hypnotic, poetic and utterly original, Holmer’s drama is a coming-of-age tale that eschews the genre’s predictable tropes, placing its action around the experiences of feisty protagonist Toni (Royalty Hightower).
Where more mainstream fare would linger on the youngster’s change of environment, placing deliberate narrative obstacles in her way, Holmer renders the transition seamless. Save for a brief flash of reticence (her first words, 10 minutes in), Toni slides into the new surroundings without fuss. The director’s gaze – aided by Paul Yee’s slick cinematography – does not shift, however, placing her at the centre of the frame, capturing those awkward first attempts at the complex dance moves required by her troupe.
If the initial feeling is that The Fits seems inaccessible, then its spirited adherence to a particular path is admirable. The brief running time does not allow for backstory or character development, yet Toni is a child and, thus, very little can actually seem like a great deal. Hightower buys into the complexity of the character, carrying herself with a maturity belying her years. Subtle touches are to be savoured, from her slightly masculine swagger to the phantom brawling that she builds into her dancing style.
One outstanding scene sees Toni refining a routine on an overpass. Her increasing delight and the sheer kineticism of the sequence happily offsets the bleakness of the immediate surroundings. In another, Toni and her pal, Beezy, cavort through the evening caverns of the centre in purloined costumes, all sequins and giggles.
As Toni and a friend discuss the chances of being gripped by ‘the fits’ – the cause of which may, in a topical nod to the realities of inner city American life, be a tainted water supply – she points to the fact that ‘it hasn’t happened to any of the boys.’ ‘Yeah,’ comes the reply, ‘but we’re not them.’ If the malady is linked to blossoming womanhood, then Toni cannot be safe forever, piercing her ears after gleefully receiving a vague compliment from one of her fellow pugilists.
Holmer has fashioned something fascinating and unknowable here, clearly unsuited to mass consumption. It mirrors instead the shifting ground of adolescence, with all its uncertainties and contradictions. Emotion, not reason, carries the day.