After a warm reception at this year’s Sundance, The Fits gets a limited UK release this week. Its story may sound familiar, but the way it’s told is anything but.
Cast your mind back to the spring of last year and a film that caused something of a stir. The Falling. It was set in a late 60s girls’ school where a fainting epidemic breaks out among the students and threatens everybody’s stability. Step forward the 2017 version, a micro-budget film set in a community centre in Cincinnati. The Fits.
It’s a world away from the posh school of The Falling, with the focus on Toni (the unforgettably named Royalty Hightower), a young tomboy who’s into boxing and trains at the community centre gym with her brother. She becomes fascinated with the local female dance troupe, The Lionesses, who also practise there and, despite a shaky start, earns her place. But then one of the instructors collapses with what looks like some kind of fit. The same happens to another and it spreads to the dancers themselves. And nobody knows why.
The difference between this and The Falling is that the seizures don’t drive the story forward. In truth, they’re more of a sub-plot, with the focus fairly and squarely on Toni and her efforts to become part of the gang, even though she knows deep down she doesn’t, and won’t ever, belong. When she joins the dance troupe, she’s given a temporary tattoo but scratches it off. She tries painting her nails with sparkly polish but that’s short lived as well, picked off quickly afterwards. She’s athletic and agile, but not overly feminine, while the others around her are much more girly. She cuts a solitary figure, has few friends and only seems comfortable when she’s dancing or boxing.
On the verge of being a teenager, Toni is facing her first of many dilemmas that go with growing up – wanting to fit in and be popular, but doing it on her own terms. She can’t reconcile the two. And she’s not the only one who regards herself as an outsider because everybody else does as well. The fact that she’s often seen looking through windows trying to work out what’s going on, or listening to other people’s conversations just reinforces that.
With her character so much in the spotlight, it puts pressure on the young talents of Royalty Hightower. It’s a very physical role, as she dances and boxes extensively, and she has little in the way of dialogue, so has to build her character through expressions, gestures and actions. On screen for most of the time, she carries the role with a confidence that belies her years.
For a micro-budget film funded purely through grants, debut director Anna Rose Holmer and her cinematographer, Paul Yee, have created a strong and lingering visual style. The empty swimming pool, with its undulating floor and stripes, the never-ending white walls and vast, never-ending spaces. It adds to an all-pervading atmosphere of eeriness, one that increasingly puts you on edge as you wonder who will be the next to collapse. We never get to the bottom of their cause, but we’re not meant to, because they’re intended to be metaphorical, a transition for the younger members of the dance troupe.
The Fits received a warm reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with Royalty Hightower’s performance going down especially well. It poses many questions but only manages to answer some of them. But its efforts are captivating.
The Fits is in cinemas from Friday, 24 February.