Just a week after Moonlight graced UK cinema screens in all its feverish beauty we’re treated to another hard-hitting US indie release that places black characters front and centre. However, though there are certainly parallels to be drawn between Barry Jenkins’ Oscar hopeful and Anna Rose Holmer’s narrative debut The Fits, neither should be defined by the race of their respective casts. Each feature questions universal issues of consciousness and sexuality, and tackles the hardships of growing up, peer pressure and belonging.
The Fits is as much a coming-of-age tale as its sun-blanched Miami triptych counterpart, but here the focus lies with a tomboyish young lady punching well above her weight as she strives to find her place in the world. Toni (Royalty Hightower), stands as tall and resolute as her name, buzzing with a captivating dynamism and energy from early images doing sit-ups in a community center boxing gym she attends with her brother (Da’Sean Minor). At a trim 80 minutes, The Fits is slimmed down but Holmer achieves a great deal with economical, nuanced storytelling where no image or sound is without meaning.
Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the gym, auditorium and drained outdoor pool, these liminal, non-domestic spaces are reflective of Toni’s transitional state of mind and body. Initially separated from the female domain of dance that occurs in alluring slow-mo through a window-panelled door, a jarring, off-key score indicates an increasing discomfort and unease in her male-dominated sphere and a shift of consciousness occurs. Holmer opens out a restrictive physical setting with an aural landscape that echoes inside Toni’s mind as she fights her way through the terrifying whirlwind that is early adolescence.
Paul Yee’s camera is trained on her throughout as remarkably expressive eyes betray bewilderment, fear and uncertainty. We watch her watching, drinking in and trying to understand the world around her. Emotive peaks are especially acute when the older girls begin to suffer from the titular seizures. Speculation is rife: is there something in the water? Is it some kind of “boyfriend disease” as Toni’s charming confidante Beezy (Alexis Neblett) suggests? Are they anxiety attacks from the pressure of competition? Or is it a physical manifestation of dramatic physical and mental changes undergone as each girl moves towards womanhood? Questions and ideas abound and for a lack of any reassuring adult presence, Toni must navigate this confusing isolation alone.
Though female adolescence has previously featured in cinema it is hard to recall one of such thought-provoking precision, vision and invention. No matter the urgency or importance of this tale, it tackles issues and themes that an audience member of any class, colour or creed will recognise, muse upon and consider. The relevance of Holmer and Jenkins’ tremendous meditations on childhood, adolescence and beyond depends on the open-mindedness of a viewer and his or her ability to place themselves in the shoes of those well-sketched, superbly performed characters we delight in coming to know and whose experiences, woes, uncertainties and fears are akin to those we have all known.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens