The Fits ★★★★½

The camera in Anna Rose Holmer's debut film, The Fits, fixates on her characters' physicality. Adolescence is perhaps characterised most by the fraught relationship with one's own body, the learning to live in a skin that becomes increasingly uncomfortable and feels uncontrollable, like it has a mind of its own. Growing up is a process of finding out where and how you fit, of trying on different identities and roles. 11-year old Toni (Royalty Hightower) navigates that confusing space every adolescent must, first as a member of a community boxing gym (where her brother and the other older boys have welcomed her as one of them), and later as a member of the community dance troop, the Lionesses. The Fits, in being set almost entirely within and around the Lincoln Community Center, suggests these changes and the complications surrounding them are profoundly social ones, steeped in experiences of alienation and belonging.

Toni spends much of the movie observing: the camera lingers not just on Toni, but on the way she views herself and others, often as an outsider trying to learn. Toni's entire world exists in pursuit of physical control, but the movie complicates that by highlighting the ways physicality and psychology merge, and by the reckoning with how mastery of physical control often means having to give up control in the process. Dancing and boxing are rhythmic, but unconsciously and instinctively so, tapping into the primal urge to move the body. Tony has trouble with the choreographed dance routines not because she has no rhythm (we see in her boxing that she does), but because they are too regimented, distanced from the way the body yearns to move seemingly uncontrolled by conscious intent.

The score (reminiscent of Kieślowski's The Decalogue) and sound design here evoke a potent dread. Horror comes in The Fits by adolescent fear of not having control (literally, when one character wets herself out of fright). The older girls' confidence and seeming mastery of their appearance and physical form is betrayed by a total loss of control when one by one they are struck with mysterious seizures (those from which the film takes its title).

These scenes bring to mind Pentacostal religious imagery, both of being overcome with the Holy Spirit and of being victim to demonic possession. In either case, control of one's own body is given over to something else. There is a line questioning why none of the boys have come down with the fits. "We're not them," one character says. The strurm and drang of adolescence weigh harder on the female body, literally preparing itself to play host to a new entity. The fits become a metaphor for menstruation, a rite of passage that increasingly alienates Toni as someone who has not experienced an event that is both frightening and a badge of pride for those who have survived it.

In one particularly jubilant scene that could have come from a completely different film, the score begins to build and a beat picks up (I think, for the first time) as Toni's regular boxing training routine on top of a highway overpass morphs effortlessly into choreographed dance. Dance, boxing, or any type of athletic activity requires both mastery of the body and the willingness to let instinct take over. This scene is different from the scenes we've seen of Toni dancing up to that point. Here she is comfortable, natural, even smiling. She reconciles two forms through the need to lose herself in the movement.

In the film's final scene, Holmer makes the bold choice to end Toni's story with a touch of magic realism. It's a gorgeous, stunning sequence in which the haunting of the body is transformed into a jubilant expression of possibility. The performance Tony has been preparing for, as involuntary as it is, is finally the thing that turns heads, and makes her part of something bigger than herself. This is coming of age by way of total transformation, body and soul.