SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2016
By Don Simpson | January 31, 2016
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Writers: Saela Davis, Anna Rose Holmer, Lisa Kjerulff
Starring: Royalty Hightower, Makyla Burnam, Alexis Neblett, Inayah Rodgers, Lauren Gibson, Da’Sean Minor, Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.
Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an introverted, 11-year-old tomboy trapped between a masculine and feminine world in Cincinnati’s West End. The majority of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits finds Toni inside her neighborhood Lincoln Rec Center where she helps her older brother Jermaine (De’Sean Minor) maintain the boxing gym. When not doing laundry or refilling the water cooler, Toni practices boxing and works out. Though it remains unspoken, Toni idolizes her older brother and essentially wants to do everything that he does.
Then one day Toni finds herself enamored with the community center’s drill dance team, The Lionesses. Toni becomes obsessed with the pack mentality of the Lionesses and their intense movements. After observing the Lionesses from afar, Toni eventually decides to try out for the team, transforming from a solitary boxer to a collaborative dancer.
The Fits presents the topic of gender in a unique (borderline experimental) coming of age narrative. Using Toni’s fierce gaze as its guide, The Fits is very clearly told from Toni’s perspective. Holmer’s film focuses on how Toni sees herself as well as the people around her. Toni’s investigative eyes reveal that she is perpetually deciphering her surroundings and trying to find a place for herself. She compares her fit, boyish body to the more traditionally feminine shapes of the other girls; just as she measures her calculated and stilted dance movements with the natural fluidity and sensuality of the Lionesses. Then Toni, being the intuitive girl that she is, learns how to become more like the other girls. Using her boxing movements and physical conditioning to her advantage as a dancer, Toni makes up for her initial lack of femininity — her femininity will follow naturally.
The clever title touches upon several aspects of The Fits, such as Toni’s fit physical condition, the notion of fitting in or assimilating, the dance team’s spastic choreography, and the mysterious seizures (which turn out to be a metaphor for each girl’s menarche) that riddle the dance team.
In her feature-length debut, Holmer showcases the benefits of friendship, collaboration and teamwork, specifically for girls on the cusp of adolescence. With adults, education, economics and politics all relegated to the periphery, The Fits focuses solely on Toni’s passage into womanhood. But what makes The Fits truly special are Holmer’s directorial flourishes of magic realism, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ pitch-perfect score, and Royalty Hightower’s authentic and contemplative debut performance.