by Ken Bakely
In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, the action almost entirely takes place inside a community center in Cincinnati. The building has a gym in it, and enough open spaces and performance areas nearby to host a dance troupe. Eleven year old Toni (Royalty Hightower), spends her afternoons here, doing pushups and situps, and wandering around the complex, waiting for her older brother (Antonio A. B. Grant Jr.) to finish boxing practice. She becomes fascinated with the girls’ dance team that meets in the auditorium across the hall. There girls her age, and ones slightly older. They practice three times a week, and have been doing well in competitions. She joins them, and everything seems straightforward at the start.
But then, strange things begin to happen. One day, a girl suddenly falls ill. She seizes up, jerks around violently, and falls to the ground. A little while later, she’s fine. But then it happens again, to someone else. And again. And again. It soon happens with such frequency that it gains a nickname – “the fits.” First, the local authorities believe it must be something in the water supply, and advise the community center’s owners to use bottled water for the time being. Yet that doesn’t seem to be it. It is a genuine mystery, and while most of the children and their parents are confused, Toni is fascinated. What’s really going on here? Will it happen to her next? Or to a friend? There’s something undeniably interesting about this odd condition, an ensnaring obsession that no one can pinpoint, but everyone feels.
The Fits is Holmer’s directorial debut. Her confidence as a director and co-writer is impressive – from gutsy, squared visuals (characters are placed dead-center in close-ups, looking right into the frame at times) to a dauntingly ambiguous story (questions linger in pleasurably hazy detail, never going unanswered but not emblazoned on proverbial neon lights.) The screenplay is formatted cultishly at times, using hushed-up “girl talk” as shorthand for the mystery at the center of the plot, bringing to mind many supernatural horror films of the past. Presenting the mania that afflicts the characters as some frightening other, which affects those entering adolescence in sudden, frightening ways, is the key subtext that the plot rides on.
Royalty Hightower is not a trained actress – indeed, The Fits is her first feature film, and yet her performance is engaging all the same. Playing someone stuck between a desire to fit in and a need to have independence and self-realization, Hightower is able to balance these complicated emotions through a surprisingly diverse array of nonverbal tics, otherwise neutral lines given extra weight, and a fully enveloping presence. She captures the concept of acting through silence, a vital element for her character’s wallflower tendencies. After all, Holmer often stages scenes through indirect observation – what’s seen through an ajar door, the dividers in a stall, the closed curtains on a stage.
Perhaps this film’s subtlety can be a demerit at times, as at 78 minutes, it seems as if the script is caught somewhere in the balance of a killer short film stretched too long, or an underdeveloped feature project that just needed a bit more push. It’s this equivalence which holds The Fits from ascending above its promising elements and delivering something greater than any individual part. As is, it’s never particularly underwhelming, but there’s an undeniable feeling that the story needed a bit more work. Yet what else can be said when the other details – the direction, the cinematography, the acting – are so credible? I’m still excited to see what Holmer tackles next, and what Hightower can do as she develops as an actress. It hardly seems appropriate to keep docking points. If this is the start of some polished careers, then it’s all worth it and more.