OP-ROB RATING: LEGEND
“The Fits”, a 2016 independent film directed by Anna Rose Holmer is about an elementary school girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower) living in a Cincinnati housing project. She is slender, sports two tightly woven braids that bounce behind her head, and has the look of someone wise beyond her years. Aside from the hairdo, Toni could easily be mistaken for a boy. She follows in the footsteps of Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), her older brother, who is an amateur boxer. In the local community center, Toni boxes with the guys, does sit-ups with the guys, and runs stairs with the guys. Older males surround her in the boxing environment. However Toni ventures across the community center to spy on the girls dance group, “The Lionesses”. The group performs in a competitive hip-hop circuit. The practices that Toni frequently observes sometime involve a one-on-one “dance-off” that is in tune with the intensive nature of boxing. Fascinated and with the blessing of Jermaine, Toni decides to try out for the all-female group.
The theme of “The Fits” is centered around gender roles, and what effect “choosing” a certain gender has on an individual. For Toni, she unknowingly “chooses” to be a girl when she joins the Lionesses. For example, she pierces her ears, paints her nails, and makes new female friends. While all of these things aren’t necessarily bad, they alienate Toni from her brother, and from the boys she used to hang out with. At a certain point in the film, Toni no longer fits in with her former friends.
An overarching dynamic in the film involves a series of seizure-like attacks on various members of the Lionesses. One day at practice one of the older girls loses control of her body and begins convulsing. The violent shaking is preceded by a brief trance like state. The event shocks all of the girls, and they suspend practice. Although quite frightening, the “fit” doesn’t harm the girl, and she returns to normal as if nothing occurred. Over a period of time each girl succumbs to the fits, one by one. Although the community center blames the drinking water, none of the boys are taken with the fits. The meaning of the attacks is up for interpretation, but it is undeniably intertwined with gender. The girls are affected while the boys are not. As the film reaches its climax we wonder if young Toni, like the rest of the girls, will fall victim to the strange attack.
“The Fits” is full of interesting comparisons regarding gender. One such comparison is between boxing and dancing. With the exception of Toni, who does both, the sports are restricted to either boys or girls. The boxing is brutal, yet precise and calculated. The Lionesses’ style of dancing is also very aggressive, but in a much wilder and reckless sense. In one of the dance routines there is a punch integrated with the rest of the moves. On one of Toni’s first days as a Lioness, her authentic punch looks out of place with the rest of the routine. Like a sound-byte of classical music being spliced into a DMX song. These stark comparisons add layers to a seemingly basic story.
Most importantly “The Fits” is bolstered by superb direction from Holmer and a riveting performance from Royalty Hightower. Each scene is filmed with the kind purpose that is rarely displayed on the screen in this day and age. For example, when Toni first spies on the Lionesses she does so from behind a door, looking through a narrow rectangular window. The shot emphasizes her separation not only from the dancers, but also from the female gender role. As the film runs its course and Toni “becomes a girl”, she looks at her former training partners in the boxing gym from an identical vantage point. These tiny details are interspersed throughout “The Fits”, and add further intrigue to the story.
Perhaps the seminal moment in “The Fits” occurs about halfway through the movie, when Toni stands on small arched bridge over a busy highway. In a long take, she starts dancing and punching. The two don’t mix, and it looks awkward. But she continues with intensity, alone and unbothered. By the end of her little workout she is smiling and laughing, completely content and full of confidence. In reality, true individualism is independent of gender. For a brief period, Toni embodies this kind of total freedom. She can have the best of both worlds. It is only when she commits to one over the other, or perhaps is inevitably taken by one that she loses the equilibrium embodied in the bridge scene. “The Fits” runs for only 72 minutes, but packs the punch of a three-hour epic. A film so unique in its execution and so universal in its meaning, “The Fits” is the best movie of this summer so far.