The Fits is a film not so much about the performance of dance but about dance and movement as the language of the film itself. It shapes both the characters and the narrative. The actual dance pieces performed in the film were only part of the story- the punctuation. As the director Anna Rose Holmer states in her notes on the film, “I directed The Fits as a dance film, considering the movements of the actors and camera to be choreography in each scene.” The movie’s subject is Toni played by Royalty Hightower, a tiny eleven year-old who is coming into her own as an adolescent and starting to become conscious of her own identity as a person.
Trailer- The Fits
When we meet Toni, she is boxing at a community center gym with her older brother Dante. It is clear that they have a close relationship and that Dante is one of the few, if not the only, meaningful emotional connection that Toni has at this point in her life. She does not yet truly have her own identity but is instead, an extension of her loving brother’s identity. His friends are her friends, his avocation, her avocation. And so she boxes and helps out at the community center- just like Dante does. And she dresses like Dante in tanks, sweats, and sneakers. Other than that, the pretty, diminutive pre-teen is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Toni does however, observe.
There is also a girls’ dance troupe at the community center. They form the backdrop to Toni’s life at the gym- the background noise… The viewer gets the feeling that these are the type of girls that Toni’s family- who besides her brother Dante- remain offscreen, may have perhaps warned her about. Communities from time immemorial, have often looked askance at women who perform dance. So we at first get the sense that Toni thinks she knows these girls and indeed fears them. In fact she knows nothing about them. There comes that moment though when Toni is caught off-guard. She glances over as they are playing around during practice one day and it is as if she is seeing the girls for the first time. They are generally older than her and seem to be fully in charge of their identities. They are confident without being overly brash. They are an intriguing admixture of passion, femininity, resilience and healthy self-respect. Though they’re not as loud as she’s probably been taught to believe, she suddenly hears them better. Though not as audacious as she’d been led to believe, she suddenly sees them more clearly- and perceives something of herself in them. She starts to understand that they embody some necessary part of herself that she hasn’t yet tapped into but knows is there. Still, her fear stops her and it takes the urgings of her brother to push her to audition. She gets in.
The film has almost as much silence as dialogue which is a reflection of Toni’s quiet, reflective nature. There are a lot of close-ups on Toni emphasizing her stillness and solitariness-her apartness. When she first starts out with the squad she is the last person to leave the locker room for practice. Instead of hurrying out, she does a slow grapevine toward the exit. Her ubiquitous grey sweatpants her cocoon as she studies the various and sundry colorful pieces of clothing the girls have left behind in carefree abandon. They are like a sartorial trail guiding her to her own destiny. Like many solitary people, she becomes friends with someone with the gift of loquacity, Beezy played by Alexis Neblett. Beezy is more your typical talkative, excited about everything eleven year-old. She is spry and spontaneous where Toni is lumbering though not ungraceful. Where many might take it as a personal affront, Beezy does not seem to either notice or care that Toni does not have much to say. She needs an audience and Toni fits the bill. It is a perfectly symbiotic relationship- partners in the tango of friendship.
Soon after Toni lands her spot on the squad, the members starting with the squad’s captain start having mysterious fits that manifest almost like epileptic seizures except none of the girls have epilepsy. The community center launches an investigation into what environmental factors might be causing these “fits” but there are no definitive answers. It is also very strange that none of the boys who use the community center just as much as the girls are, have gotten these fits. Initially, everyone becomes afraid of being the next girl to suffer from the seizures until they realize that there are apparently no other effects of the minutes-long seizures except a little extra attention. There are no physical or psychological effects. So the seizures morph into a badge of belonging. Now the girls begin to hope that it befalls them. It is now a matter of fitting in with everyone else.
As for the fits themselves, the fact they affect only the girls indicates symbolism about the girls’ maturation into womanhood. In the same way that menstruation is something that girls both dread and anticipate as a rite of passage and badge of honor, these fits function in much the same manner in the film. The anxiety for the “late bloomers” is also very similar. Toni is not immune to the feeling of wanting to belong. Beezy also becomes a victim and Toni can only sit and listen as Beezy commiserates about the experience with another girl on the squad. When Toni inquires about her wellbeing, Beezy cruelly replies, “What do you know about it?” before dramatically flouncing off. Well, Toni soon gains first-hand experience with the seizures during dance practice one day not long after Beezy’s cold retort. The viewer has to wonder if Toni’s episode was manufactured. Did Toni so want to be able to bond over this experience that she faked having the fits? If so, did any of the other girls do so as well? We can’t know for sure. But how many of us have faked liking something we don’t like or knowledge of something we have no clue about in order to fit in or just not to be an outsider? Toni has finally found a place where she can not only belong but also use as a guide for finding herself as a young woman. Some things are hard to let go of and a few minutes of pretending to have a fit can seem a small price to pay-especially to an eleven year-old.
Apart from the beautiful physicality of the girls dancing, the movie is pleasing in a larger way. Novelist Zadie Smith has said, “black culture is a house with a thousand rooms, with windows looking out on so many views”. That a film like this was made with an African-American female protagonist is testament that finally there is incipient recognition of the varied lives, cultures, proclivities, and personalities of Black girls and women. The Fits implicitly acknowledges that the black female community intersects with female communities of other races in our likewise infinite ways of being and seeing life. Granted, the familiar “athleticism” trope is invoked but the filmmakers are to be credited with not resting on their laurels. Yes Toni is written as “physical” but the writers and director have done the work to make her in the end, much more than that.
The Fits is currently playing in select theaters. Check theater listings for location and times. It will be released on a number of digital platforms on August 16th and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray September 13th.