A Study in Flow: The Fits

A young girl stands alone in an empty swimming pool. It’s a grungy setting, with dirt smudging the white tile and a sky more muddy than clear. She looks toward the sky and toward the sun, youthfully curious yet focused on something just out of reach. The scene cuts. She is now walking down her school hallway, as a song plays in time to her steps and to the movements of the camera. Step by step, she moves until her feet lift off the ground ever so gently, no longer bound by gravity.

She is beyond gravity, she is movement made real.

This is a scene from The Fits, a movie filled to the brim with kinetic energy, with a love of movement. The scene feels less like a climax and more of a thesis statement by the filmmaker, Anna Rose Holmer. With her debut film, an exceedingly experimental movie to break into the mainstream, Holmer works with exceptional skill, capturing and exploring movement onscreen, whether it be a young boxer finding her footing, a dancer perfecting choreography, a young girl at play, or the uncontrollable spasms that give the movie its title.

Toni, the aforementioned young girl—played wonderfully by Royalty Hightower—decides to transition from boxing with her brother to dancing with her school’s team. She is a tomboy, or at least not as obviously traditionally “girly” as the other members of the dance team. Her ears are not pierced (for now), she doesn’t really care about boys (for now), and she’s not as graceful a dancer as she is a boxer (for now). As Toni settles further into the group, making friends and learning the dances, girls on the team begin experiencing what seem like seizures. No one is sure what to make of “the fits,” as the media names them. The movie’s narrative is built on not only these mysterious fits, but also on the tension of who will succumb to them next.

Holmer loosely ties these fits to a discussion on growing up, specifically on the transition from girlhood into womanhood and the childlike fear and fascination of adolescence. Some of the movie’s most intriguing scenes are those in which these girls describe the fits, and how these descriptions match and differ. Yet, the movie never chooses to explore the connection more deeply. This surface-level treatment of the fits simultaneously elevates the movie and hurts it. Why do the fits represent a coming of age, particularly for that of women? Why does Holmer choose to make the fits something concrete in such a lyrical film, going so far as to include the possibility that the fits are caused by tainted water? Although very much couched as a “coming of age” story, it seems that the narrative is extraneous, if not actively distracting, to the true intent of Holmer’s work. It’s almost a shame she didn’t push it more one way or the other, since the movie does seem to find a middling ground that, although more accessible, is less of a powerful film statement.

This isn’t to criticize the movie entirely though, not at all. It’s a wonderful, electric first feature film, if not a complete triumph. It’s perhaps true that Holmer isn’t interested in exploring the fits more deeply because she is more interested in capturing the essence of something esoteric, something about movement and growing up. In this, The Fits is a success, as the movie is a thematically tight testament to movement onscreen and a quiet exploration of an introverted young girl. Holmer reaches back to the technical masters of the Silent film era, modernizing and reworking that most practical of film rules: showing and not telling.

Holmer, along with the gifted young performers she directs, understands movement entirely, especially how best to demonstrate feeling and story through it. In a particularly lovely scene, the camera follows Toni as she play dances, leaping and moving to a choreography of her own. Even in this scene, with no words or music, there’s a profound energy that shows Toni in a natural setting and builds towards whats to come. Whether boxing or dancing, there is an achievement to every performance, every shot, and even the editing that sets a rhythm to the movie. Holmer—along with cinematographer Paul Yee and editor Saela Davis —gives emotional and thematic meaning to every technical aspect of the movie, creating anticipation and fear of these fits.

The finale is perhaps the best example of the movie’s interests, when the movie loses itself to pure movement akin to that of a musical number. Holmer captures what any boxer, dancer, or really any master of a craft experiences when they are in the flow—or perhaps, in the fits. That moment in which the body and mind synchronize so that one is in complete absorption in what one does. Decisions are made instinctively, and the movement comes from within. It’s why overthinking seems to be the death knell of doing anything exceptionally. With The Fits, Holmer demonstrates this way of being—and seems to experience it in her filmmaking—finding an emotional release to losing oneself in movement itself.

Losing yourself in the flow is to give in to instinct, something scary and primal. It’s why there is so much tension and fear surrounding “letting go.” This tension and fear informs so much of the movie. Instinct can represent the scary, baser aspects of humanity, but also inherent goodness. In acting and moving instinctively, there is a seemingly indefinable chaos along with an ephemeral beauty, a welcome relief in giving oneself over to the fits.

  • I included this Moonlight x Alvin Ailey video because Anna Rose Holmer directed it as well, and it’s just so damn wonderful. She’s such an exciting filmmaker, and IMAGINE IF SHE DID A MUSICAL MOVIE???
  • This movie reminded me a lot of Man with a Movie Camera, except whereas that explored filmmaking as mechanical process, Holmer explores filmmaking as human exercise.
  • The score and soundtrack to The Fits by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrians is exceptional. It can be a little overbearing, but never unwelcome. Special s/o to the killer use of Kiah Victoria’s “Aurora”.

The Fits is available to rent or buy via Amazon Video, iTunesYouTube, Vudu, or Google Play.

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