As “The Fits” begins, an 11-year-old African-American girl is doing sit-ups in front of a boxing ring, then steps in and goes through some sparing motions. As her behavior transforms into a choreographed, almost balletic coordination between her and a sparring partner, it’s clear that writer-director Anna Rose Holmer — making her feature-length debut — has a beguiling cinematic vision.
The film contains visual elements reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” in its evocative physical images of the rigorous training process, hazards of which include ample vomit and blood; but it’s not these physical extremes that make the sequences so compelling so much as as the incredible process Holmer uses to capture movement.
Holmer also has an eye for young talent. Royalty Hightower is a name to remember – admittedly, it’s a hard one to forget — who delivers a beguiling breakthrough performance that carries the film, even after the story makes a unsatisfactory jump from social-realist drama to fantasy.
Hightower plays Toni, a girl who spends much of her spare moments training in the gym with her brother Maine (De’Sean Minor). She’s the only female in this man’s world, and we catch glimpses of girls training to be dancers in the hall opposite of the leisure centre in the West End of Cincinnati.
Holmer creates tension by withholding crucial details: Why does Toni train with her brother? Where are their parents? At one moment they seem to be walking home, but never arrive their destination. To that end, “The Fits” constantly avoids conventional exposition. It’s refreshing to see a film in a metropolitan setting with African American youths that doesn’t get hung up on exploring social status. Instead, nearly the whole film takes place inside the leisure center amidst a lot of sweat, blood and dancing.
The sense of mystery builds when Toni decides to cross the hallway and start training with the the Lionesses, a troupe of young champion drill dancers. With virtually no dialogue, “The Fits” organically establishes this world. Toni, walking through the hallway minding her own business, slowly pace pacing around, suddenly finds herself submerged into a crown of wild and happy girls. She’s different, but strongly desires acceptance; like Celine Sciamma’s recent Parisian girl gang drama “Girlhood,” Holmer tracks the way her young protagonist is drawn to an edgy world.
The girls have a much clearer hierarchy than their male counterparts. The team captains are beauty queens who go by the colorful monikers Legs (Maklya Burnam) and Karisma (Inayah Rodgers). There’s enough detail here to fill a whole movie, but “The Fits” eventually shifts gears: Just as Toni beings to find her feet, and a female companion in Beezy (Alexis Neblett), a mysterious illness afflicts several members of the group. There are no explanations, but local authorities blame the water. These news reports mark the first indication of a larger world that’s otherwise never explored.
The enigmatic twist dangles there without arriving at a fully satisfying explanation, although it does lead to a fantastically involving closing sequence. Still, the peculiar development stands out as an attempt to impose too much narrative on a movie that doesn’t really need it. There’s a sense that the director has gotten into the ring with her own movie, and kept fighting long after she won us over, but it’s a promising start.
“The Fits” premiered last week in Venice. It is currently seeking distribution.