Anna Rose Holmer’s audacious debut, The Fits, defies expectation at pivotal turns. With a voyeuristic, almost documentarian, approach to characterization, her angle is that of a wallflower, dangling on the narrative precipice of something indefinable and otherworldly that’s also very much intimate, universal. That Holmer’s film truncates at barely an hour and ten minutes, leaving us stumbling for answers in the aftermath of its unchecked mindfucking, is a testament to her nontraditional narrative verve, even if it may leave the casual viewer yammering for proper resolution.
Holmer opens with a young girl tenaciously executing crunches. Entering and exiting the frame, she peers into the camera with an inquisitive gaze. From go, Holmer aims to burrow into our subconscious and Royalty Hightower is her well-plucked entrance point. As Toni, our quietly determined 11-year old heroine, Hightower’s chiseled features and already well-defined muscular structure lend her a tomboyish edge. But it’s her implacable maturity that lends her true intrigue and makes for a proper choice in character examination.
In Cincinnati’s cruddy urban epicenter, Toni spends afternoons sweeping gymnasium floors, helping her older brother (Da’Sean Minor) as he tidies the community center. Their relationship is nuanced and bare-bones, a reflection of the film’s overarching approach to drama and storytelling. We get a sense that Toni’s predilection for boxing, the presumed endgame for all her training, is a side effect of little sister syndrome but Holmer keeps her intentions coy throughout. In all senses, Holmer is sparse, offering naught but crumbs and context and leaving her audience to assemble them as we might. It’s a presumptive game she plays but audiences willing to engage with her cat-and-mouse narrative structure are in store for dauntless dramatics.
A serendipitous encounter with the school’s Lionesses Dance Team, state champions who may as well have been beamed in from the Red Planet the way Toni is caught off guard but their existence, leads to fast-born obsession. As Toni befriends a few of the more traditionally feminine members of the dance trope, she becomes embroiled in a battle of image, defining who she is and who she will become. Temporary tattoos are scraped off. Pierced ears are abandoned, and not only from infection. When members of the crew suddenly start falling into possessed convulsions, the titular “fits”, Holmer’s extreme metaphorical nerve emerges, crafting an unforeseeable arc that suits The Fits snugly. Limited in scope though it may be, her packs an existential punch to all sides of the cortex.
Taking on the coming-of-age slant with authority, Holmer’s film is a cautionary tale of conformity that dodges inertia like a shadow boxer. There’s no hiding the fact that the film functions on a purely emotional level and aims to rile up a subconscious response, even when the concrete elements of Holmer’s film appear at arm’s length. Strong work from Hightower, who both throws herself into the physical commitment of Toni’s routines while exacting a delicate balance between self-assurance and tween curiosities, amplifies the effect and makes for a subject worthy of our pondering.
The bassoon-heavy soundtrack courtesy of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans keeps that investigative spirit piqued. Its invasive, suspicious soundscape draws our curiosities but doesn’t tell us where to point them. The result is intentionally disorienting but lays the groundwork for Holmer’s explosive, music-driven final moment to explode as if from chrysalis. That The Fits appears to lack a third act is a testament to Holmer’s want to deconstruct the traditional narrative; her bitter unwillingness to conform. That her final imagery will replay over and over in your head is a testament to her staying power as a filmmaker.
CONCLUSION: A brief (70 minute) foray into an experimentalist meditation on maturation, Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut ‘The Fits’ is a subtle cinematic firecracker that probes fundamental metaphysical treatises of self. At its center lay the question of how one becomes oneself and Holmer’s response is graceful, if well-cloaked, and has the added benefit of a rock solid newcomer in Royalty Hightower.