Film Review: ‘The Fits’ puts a rapturous new spin on the dance movie

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fits_onesheet_final2.inddFor as long as civilization has existed and into the foreseeable future, there will always be pressure on individuals to “fit in”. Particularly among younger generations, the expectations of “coolness” can be overwhelming. In her captivating debut feature The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer explores this desire for belonging with a fresh, vibrant and triumphantly female perspective.

The Fits centers around a girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower), who spends most afternoons training with her brother at the local boxing gym. Dedicated to her sport, she strives to keep up with the rest of the boys, all older and stronger than she is. As the only girl however, she begins to feel drawn to the competitive girls’ dance team next door, housed within the same community center. Utterly fascinated by their confidence and skills, she decides to join them, taking the same committed approach as her boxing. Assimilating into their fiercely feminine attitude requires a change of style however, far removed from her tomboyish personality. But when the captain and other team members subsequently begin to suffer from inexplicable fainting incidents, Toni begins to wonder whether the risk of “the fits” is worth it.

As Toni tries to find her true self and figure out the cause of the fits, things get truly mysterious as the film envelopes you in its spellbinding narrative. With the aid of dynamic cinematography and a bewitching score, Holmer creates an authentic child’s world (i.e. teens and pre-teens), uncorrupted by adults. Indeed, while adults are largely absent or shot out of focus, the camera magnifies the smaller details of childhood life, like sharing candy as a symbol of friendship or the excitement of temporary tattoos. And even as we also see the bloody aggression of boxing, a sense of innocence pervades through the depiction of sibling love and genuine female friendship.

And at the heart of this microcosm is Toni, impressively portrayed by Royalty Hightower. Though only 9 years old at the time of filming, her quiet command of the screen is reminiscent of Quvenzhane Wallis’ Hushpuppy. But Hightower brings her own unique physicality, launching headfirst into the demands of the role. As we see her running, punching and eventually dancing with aplomb, the audience is entirely convinced that she can do anything.

As we follow her journey towards the unforgettable climax, the script plays with some of the familiar tropes of sports and coming of age films. But through this brilliantly multi-faceted character, the usual gendered binaries are upended, as she comes to embody different types of athleticism (boxing and dance) and persona (boxing gloves and nail polish). At a breezy 72 minutes, the film is perhaps too short to fully maximize its storytelling potential and that of its lead character. But ultimately, this unfinished masterpiece still soars on the back of its pint-sized phenom and Anna Rose Holmer’s perceptive filmmaking.

The Fits opens in select theaters June 3, 2016.

GRADE: (★★★)