Royalty Hightower is not a name you will soon forget. The young actor makes her debut in The Fits, a stunning coming age story from writer and director Anna Rose Holmer. Set almost entirely in a Cincinnati recreation center, it sets us up for a tired, nice film about an athlete who overcomes the odds. The Fits does not have that, at all, and instead Holmer’s film is about inclusion, and how to strike a balance between conformity and integrity. It is alive and curious in a way that its peers rarely achieve.
Toni (Hightower) spends all her free time at the rec center. When we meet her, she is in the middle of practice in a boxing gym. She counts off sit-ups, with little reward or acknowledgment from her peers. The center is sexually segregated: she’s the only girl in the boxing area, while all the other girls focus on a hip-hop dance competition. Holmer does not supply Toni much dialogue. She works hard, climbing stairs and sparring with her older brother Beezy (Alexis Neblett), yet she cannot help but stare afar at the girls. She switches from boxing to dance, and the other girls are quick to embrace her. But a strange thing starts to happen: one of dance captains succumbs to a seizure, and it happens to other girls, too. Unsure what’s causing the fits, Toni keeps her head down until the big competition.
Holmer strips away dialogue and drama until the setting and characters evoke powerful, more primal emotions. Toni rarely articulates how she feels, and long stretches of The Fits are nothing but hard work. This may sound repetitive, yet there is a determination to the Toni, Beezy, and the others that serves as shrewd character development. The script also avoids any sort of judgment of the boxers and dancers: no one is singled out for doing a bad job, and instead they all wordlessly accept that, yes, they’ve got to keep working. A plot emerges, but only slowly, as if The Fits could be a slice-of-life documentary. Hightower accomplishes a lot with very little: her eyes are evocative, somewhere between lively and sullen, and she’s unique only because she follows her brother’s lead.
The seizures are intriguing component that casts doubt over the rec center. Holmer dreamily suggests they may be supernatural, insofar that they we never really have a reason behind them. More importantly, they affect Toni in subtle, important ways: Toni focused on the dance captain before she seized, and Holmer keeps it ambiguous whether it’s out of admiration or attraction. The Fits arrives at a crossroads for Toni, albeit in an oblique way. She’s always an observer, and the sharp editing is a reflection of how she feels. Boxing and dancing both have their merits, and the final minutes are more about Toni’s feelings than a bigger, more physical obstacle.
In many ways, The Fits is the antithesis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, also opening this week. Both films are about young women, and feature important scenes in an empty swimming pool. But Refn infects every image with the male gaze: as his models contort their bodies, his camera sexualizes them through psychedelic visuals and scenes of passionate violence. The only gaze in The Fits is from Hightower, not the film’s director, and her ambitions are simpler: she wants to figure where she belongs, and what makes her happy. The Fits has a surprising end, one that’s delightful in a well-earned way. It is a joyful celebration of bodies, in all shapes and sizes, and how common goals can also reward us individually. Wouldn’t you rather see that over another sleazy male director who cannot get over the skimpy outfits his actors wear?