The Fits ★★★½

[7]

Although at the time I viewed The Fits it struck me as an impressive but flawed debut film, I am starting to have doubts about that initial assessment. In the weeks since I saw Anna Rose Holmer's film, it has stuck with me, drifting unbidden into my mind with a particular gesture or facial expression. I feel myself coming back again and again to The Fits on a strange visceral level. Nothing else is quite like it.

In a somewhat average corner of Cincinnati, Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower, preternaturally self-assured), like a lot of kids her age, is working to articulate her identity. She is 11 and spends her afterschool hours at a neighborhood gym taking boxing lessons. But in the dance studio across the way, Toni sees something different – The Lionesses, girls who are forging community through rituals that are more conventionally “girl” coded. The dance troupe’s routines and attitudes promise sex appeal, overt display, and above all the shared structure of conformity, all attributes that boxing cannot provide. As Toni moves between these spaces, she is testing both her own desires and the permissible boundaries of girl-identification within her social world.

Toni, as a liminal figure who moves between differently coded spaces, is by no means immune to the myriad pressures facing adolescent African-American girls, but the way she plans to situate herself vis-à-vis those demands is not yet settled. This allows Holmer to position Toni as our primary interlocutor, seeing through her eyes what will become the broader crisis that permeates the world of The Fits. The various members of the dance troupe, one by one, succumb to highly public seizures, starting with lead Lioness “Legs” (Makyla Burnam), followed by Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), her rival for popularity, and gradually going down the pecking order.

While district officials claim that these “fits” are the result of trace elements of poison in the drinking water (a clever nod of solidarity to the people of Flint, MI), there is no real reason provided for these seizures, and while the first may appear to be a sudden public outburst of heretofore secret epilepsy, eventually the girls’ actions become more perplexing. Are they psychosomatic reactions to stress, rejections of the sexualization of their bodies, or cries for attention? Even as Toni talks with younger girls about their “fits,” she can’t get a straight answer.

Holmer shows us Toni’s search for a centered self, among a highly circumscribed set of available options as a young black girl. She bristles against those boundaries, feeling understandably confined. But in a metaphorical masterstroke, Holmer shows Toni’s crisis “going viral,” turning into a form of rebellion so disruptive that even its participants cannot themselves absolutely confirm or deny its etiology. (In this regard, The Fits draws on The Crucible and other documents of young Puritan girls’ rebellion through “witchcraft.”)

This is a film that only recognizes a single axiom, and that is the intolerable invisibility of African-American women in America, and girls in particular. The bodily resistance of the young ladies in The Fits is disturbing, because it makes us scared for them. But it also unequivocally demands that we look at these girls, and makes it almost impossible to turn away. Instead of these girls being expendable or relegated to the margins, Holmer presents them as emergency bodies, the untamable excess that we will suddenly stop everything to understand.