There’s an unnerving ambiguity to The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s brilliant, quiet miracle of a debut feature. It’s at once a coming-of-age story placed up against the backdrop of bloodied boxers and the glittered torsos of dancers, at once a vitriolic piece of social commentary. Yet to put it into a box would be of disservice to the brevity of its audacious, almost indefinable tone.
We first see Toni (an extraordinary Royalty Hightower) – a feisty “Tomboy,” proud of her stature, proud of her muscular build-staring into the camera as she forces her way through an arduous set of sit ups whilst around her, boys far older box and spar. Across the hall, Toni finds herself drawn to pumping music where championship winning dance troupe The Lionesses rehearse. Director Holmer builds for up to a confrontation between Toni and her boxer brother, yet it never comes, placating it instead for approval, giving way to Toni joining the junior division, The Crabs where she befriends Beezy and Maya. This as around them, girls began to collapse into a trance like state-the titular fits. These fits start as something epileptic, but as it begins to spread through the group, become something far more choreographed and elegant. Parents believe these as induced by contaminated water whilst the girls begin to develop unbreakable bonds as a result of them.
At its most unsettling, there’s a clear comparison to Carol Morley’s scintillating The Falling and at times the chilly ambiguity of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. There’s an ebullient confidence to Holmer’s insistence to leave questions open ended-not dissimilar to Morley-yet The Fits is something far more muscular in its almost stubborn insistence of the ambiguous.
Yet it’s Girlhood, Celine Sciamma’s dazzling study of female friendships that seems most comparable. The bond between Toni and the bubbly, pint-sized Beezy is charmingly directionless, the two bouncing off one another as if true-life friends. Whilst as the almost science fiction notes begin to protrude, Holmer finds solace in these relationships. There is danger for distraction late on as the fits begin to become more extreme, spreading further amongst the group, yet Holmer grounds the film in the bonds between young women.
Trying to work out why or how the fits are occurring is a futile and ultimately pointless exercise of which Holmer clearly is not interested. They can be read at once a metaphor for menstruation, or maybe that of the shared cognitive bonds of friends at their closest, yet this takes certain disservice away from what the film achieves. Like Lynch at his best, there’s an enigmatic secrecy at the heart of The Fits that needs not be answered.
And the titular fits, fantastical and unsettling, play as an epilogue to the grand dance numbers that dot the film. The more they unconsciously thrash and spasm, the more their moves begin to emulate those of their much practiced dance routines which leads to an extraordinary, startling final five minutes as the fits-fully evolved, now more symphonic than adventitious-reach their wondrous peak.
In Royalty Hightower – only 11 and entirely inexperienced – Holmer has found an absolute star. She commands the screen even when silent; Toni says little, she often looks out of place, she is introverted and awkward, but she finds incredible depth in this silence. Her dancing at the beginning, ragged and amateurish plays into the hands of Holmer, who exploits Toni’s inexperience to create a staggering, striking finale.
At just 70 minutes, it’s deceptively short. Yet there’s never the feeling of yearning for more. Holmer has built a world where adults are absent or out of focus and teenagers reign supreme, where bonds are formed from shared experiences and dance exists as language. It’s a dreamy, beguiling wonder.
The Fits is released in the UK on 24th February.