The Fits

Screening in Belfast this month, this adolescent dance drama eschews coming-of-age tropes in favour of a more unorthodox yet fascinating slow burn

Coming off a run as one of the official selections at both the Venice and Sundance film festivals, The Fits garnered significant critical praise during its time on the screening circuit. Debuting writer-director Anna Rose Holmer developed her picture under the small-budget Venice Biennale Cinema College scheme, one requiring its participants to finish their projects within a year, and the result marks her out as an auteur of undeniable promise.

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).

This is a film that expects its audience to require no handholding and Toni’s existence, presented without context, as a keen young boxer at one of Cincinnati’s urban recreation centres is the focus of the opening moments. As she exercises and spars, the elegance of the resident dance squad – the Lionesses – catches her eye. These alpha females exude confidence and verve, piquing Toni’s pre-teenage curiosity, inspiring her to join the ranks of their callow recruits.

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.

In the latter half, her watchful aloofness could be the best shield against the eponymous phenomenon that sees the dancers being shaken by strange and involuntary seizures. They seem to haunt those girls whose sexuality is more advanced, young women apparently fixated on looks, gossip and the male boxers training just down the hall. Theirs is an emotionally heightened and potentially treacherous world, far removed from the simplicity of the ring. Holmer accentuates the distinction with artful slow-motion beats depicting boxing’s unflinching, grimy reality.

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.

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Whatever its genesis, the outbreak is eventually viewed through a prism of social inclusion, and the yearning for it, rather than that of a genuine crisis. Few are immune, perhaps, and in the final stages striking visuals and a dash of daydreams trump meaningful answers.

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.

The Fits will run at the at the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast from February 24 until March 2 and at Queen's Film Theatre from February 26 until March 1. For tickets, see www.thefitsfilm.com/screenings.