“Home of the Lionesses”
For those who like to declare how there’s no original cinema these days: I present you Anna Rose Holmer‘s coming-of-age dance drama The Fits. Yes, the most over-used genre of all received a uniquely wonderful rendition in 2016 through the eyes of an eleven-year old girl trying to find her way named Toni (Royalty Hightower). Uncertain of who she wants to become outside the shadow of her brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), she’s embraced the life of a boxer to spend time with him at the local rec center where he works. But that’s his life. She enjoys it, but something about the dance troupe across the hall fascinates her as a place of inclusion with girls rather than boys. This is the metamorphosis of adolescence, an evolutionary leap.
What Holmer and co-story creators Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff deliver is both a literal and metaphorical depiction of the rite of passage from solitary child into teammate, friend, and community member. Toni wants to be a part of something new but fears what it may do to who she’s been up until this point. Does she have what it takes to be a “Lioness”? Will they accept her outsider always awkwardly staring to catch a glimpse of their world from a distance inside the boxing gym? Is the capacity to open up to these strangers with vulnerability and desire risking rejection and pain in her to take that next step? Toni is at a crossroads between what she knows and what she wants—a critical existential choice.
But it isn’t just a matter of joining the team and going to practices while hanging with Beezy (Alexis Neblett) and Maia (Lauren Gibson) instead of the boys in the ring. Holmer takes the physicality of dancing—and training with everything from sit-ups to stair laps set to Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans never-pausing rhythmic score—to the next level by injecting the mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena into the fray. It starts with the group’s captain Legs (Makyla Burnam) and continues through the older girls with seizures causing them to lose control of their bodies as they shake down to the ground. Fear runs rampant, the city believes the water source is tainted, and the young girls seeking a spot on the team worry they might be next.
It becomes the embodiment of cliquish exclusion. You must go all-in to become a member. You must overcome anxieties and embrace the change, accepting deep within that this is the path you seek. It’s about leaving some people behind not because you’re better than them, but because you no longer have the same interests in common. There’s a level of assimilation and sameness like every community or team, but it provides a newfound individuality to be born. Rather than remain an “other” outside the group, you now have the opportunity to become a unique entity within it. So some girls crave the “fits” to prove their loyalties to this family. There’s a horror film aspect consuming them with faith of salvation on the other side guiding them through.
The entire film takes place at this rec center and the surrounding areas. We never see an adult besides the dance coach (despite Legs leading practices) and we never see Toni’s and Jermaine’s home. Those things are inconsequential as these girls move forward through the veil of maturity. The transition is occurring at the center and through dance not at home with parents removed from that sense of place and purpose. We’re watching a thaw in attitude from quiet stoicism sweeping the gym floors to giggling ambition piercing ears and loosening up in the hallways. The one constant is fear. Every time a girl goes down, Toni freezes. She isn’t quite ready to accept the struggle of illness to reap the benefits of camaraderie and success.
We’re given 72-minutes of constant movement, the story told through expressiveness beyond words. It’s about hiding behind walls and windows before breaking that barrier to gradually warm up to the idea of joining an unfamiliar world. And it’s all performed by members of the Q-Kidz Dance Team from West Cincinnati in order for an authentic depiction of these girls’ bond, athleticism, and charisma. Their gyrations move from fluid fun to crisp anger to uncontrollable shakes, the more forceful and complex they get the more likely they’ll collapse into disarray as though breaking a threshold of control moving from individual to group. Will Toni relent? Will she take the plunge and risk failure to prove she’s willing to do whatever it takes to be a sister to these girls?
It seems so simple a conceit and yet it’s so complex onscreen. Even beyond the metaphorical underpinnings of plot portraying this sense of growth, the mechanics of the visuals are beyond usual micro-budget techniques. The cinematography by Paul Yee becomes an integral role to show the emptiness of rooms after hours with Toni alone to the juxtaposition of her measured movements opposite Beezy’s carefree bounding. There are more than a few long takes capturing the physicality of the dancing, the repetition of moves over and over again to show inexperience as well as progression. And the final scene proves a revelatory embodiment of everything that came before with close-ups of feet expanding to show friends and huge expanses filled with bodies where only one or two were before.
What a moment with Kiah Victoria‘s “Aurora” playing to blow things wide open. Hightower is perfect as she carries every frame and action on her shoulders with wide eyes and determination. The Fits becomes her cocoon, the finale her metamorphosis. We rarely see her smile let alone deliver one without joke or laughter accompany it. Only as the screen cuts to black do we finally see a person comfortable and ready for whatever comes next. It’s an inspiring trajectory everyone can appreciate because the lyricism of its symbolism is universal beyond gender or race. We all want to feel included. We all want to excel while remaining true to who we are. Toni is still Toni, but from start to finish she’s also profoundly and beautifully unrecognizable.
courtesy of Oscilloscope