It feels like the last couple years have been pivotal for films centering on young talent of color. From 2015’s Dope, to this year’s Kicks, The Land, The Girl with All the Gifts, and The Get Down. It’s all really exciting. Box office success aside, (and to be figured out in several cases here), it feels like more stories about young people of color are finally hitting the screen in succession. And maybe more importantly, these stories are all different in tone, subject matter, and perspective. That diversity is so crucial. And it’s something that, in the case of The Fits, gives space to narratives that can live in their own space while simultaneously being a part of this wave.
The Fits follows Toni, a pre-teen girl from Cincinnati who spends her days boxing with boys in the local community center. However, she soon becomes interested in an all-girl dance troupe across the hall. Shortly after she musters up the courage to join, the classes are beset by a string of epileptic attacks. With each attack, girls get sent home and no one knows exactly what’s happening. In the midst of this strange situation, Toni struggles to understand what’s going on and understand who she is, too. Off the cuff, this might sound scary. And while there are moments where characters seem scared, the film is actually very tame. If anything, it focuses much more on the mystery of the attacks than the potential horror to be found in their happening. That’s probably because The Fits seems to be much more interested in exploring other things, including what the attacks represent.
Which brings us to the narrative itself: The Fits is a story about the journey of growing up, through Toni’s eyes. The specifics of which are really up to your interpretation. And honestly this is typical of most artsy fartsy films. Maybe it’s a story about a certain biological rite of passage. Maybe it’s a story about the virality of social media and spectator culture. Maybe it’s about the intersection of poverty and blackness in urban communities. In whatever case, it probably works best when you’re less concerned about the end and more concerned with how we get there; it’s the small moments and decisions that make the film interesting.
These moments and interactions are based upon three things: Toni, the male-coded world of boxing and the female-coded world of dance class. In the world of boxing, Toni’s surrounded by all the stereotypical things you’d find at a community center boxing program: organized violence, rigorous training that emphasizes sacrifice, and a group of boys who enjoy talking about girls and scarfing down pizza. Across the hall, the world of the dance class is built upon similar concepts: endless repetition, commitment to the team, and a community of young girls who are just as concerned about dance as they are about boys and makeup. In the middle is Toni. In this role, Royalty Hightower does great work bouncing between being precocious and being just as naive as any pre-teen would be about life.
Coming up in the boxing world, her familiarity becomes its own guise. Despite her slight frame and almost too-innocent-to-be-real baby-face, she knows the ropes — she moves and function among the boys and training like the best of them. This comfort is shaken however when she begins to vacillate between that world and the dance classes. Suddenly, the quiet and confident boxer becomes a floundering kid who’s about as coordinated as a newborn deer. In this transformation, the viewer gets to watch the mask fall. Underneath it, we see Toni’s truth: that she is a young girl struggling to find her place. In this instance, it’s her learning how to perform as a ‘girl,’ in a girl-dominated space. This disruption of her previously normal engagement with maleness, and the vacillation between male and female worlds, helps establish sympathy for and empathy with Toni as she learns to navigate it all. It also allows us to see her as fully human. In each movement of the film she has agency, grows, and is aware of her world. Even when she may not fully understand it.
For instance, in one scene this manifests as her continued struggle to get routines down. In a way, this is coded as her ‘failing’ to be a girl, because she’s too fully committed still to a male world of boxing class. In flipping about and trying to hit her counts, we see a physical manifestation of Toni testing the boundaries of gender performance, trying to find her comfort in this new guise. In another scene she recoils from earrings and hanging with the dance troupe. In doing her best to break away from any association with what the film has established as femininity, Toni again demonstrates her struggle to find what she wants between these worlds. Note that the film doesn’t necessarily let on that either gender-coded world is good or bad. Yes, the boys are often reckless or enjoy performing their overblown masculinity. And the girls are equally mired in the issues of being a collective: yo-yo’ing between coming together for dance and recording someone’s epileptic attack without getting help, a la any Worldstar Hip Hop moment of the past decade.
What’s most important is that Toni’s interactions with these two factions, and with the attacks themselves, makes for an interesting viewing experience wherein we watch, feel for, and fear for Toni. Even when we’re not exactly sure why — all the girls come home safe after experiencing an attack, and there seems to be no lingering consequences. This ambiguity is important because rather than completely judge characters, or insert an overtly moral voice, The Fits just presents these happenings. Ultimately it’s up to us, and Toni, to uncover our own understanding of what’s going on.
Formally, these moments and interactions are constructed in a couple ways. First, this is a film that’s really light on dialogue and heavy on visuals. Big ups to director Anna Rose Holmer, who has a keen sense of space and POV here. In some cases, this means large shots with her subjects seeming small and inconsequential in space. In others, we’re brought front row into intimate close ups with Toni and her friends. Regardless of the situation, The Fits conveys a lot of information through these different usages, making it something that you actually need to watch to understand. Color is also important here. Outside, everything is bathed externally in the cold whites, blues, greys, and browns of Ohio winters. This helps create that unending period of time that we all feel hen it’s the dead of winter. Interestingly though, it doesn’t create a sense of entrapment. Rather, it helps slow down the narrative world, allowing us to focus purely on the goings on of the community center. Inside the community center, color is pretty standard: the boxing room is awash in primary colors like blue and red, while the dance class is grounded in warm earthy colors. This makes them easily identifiable as Toni travels between the two, establishing an associative effect. Outside of this, when the film is inundated with more direct usage of color, there’s a very clear emotion or theme behind it; be it the sense of wonder and friendship from warm yellows when Toni plays with her friend after hours. Or, at the end of the film where the frame explodes with the joyous colors of spring.
The second thing to focus on formally is that the conversations that do happen are really important. For instance, there’s a deeply revelatory conversation Toni has with a friend in an empty pool. As the two girls stand several feet from each other, the frame engulfs them in the bleached white of the pool. It’s a visually striking scene. But it’s also really important because we’re hit with a pretty terrifying existential question regarding the nature of the attacks. However, if you got lost in the visual aspect of it, you completely miss the important nuggets of narrative info into it. Thus, it’s good to stay alert because watching this film is kind of like actively trying to remember a dream you just had. If you’re not attentive, parts of it will wilt away into a realm of vague but familiar feelings and images.
This dream-like quality works well given the film’s attention to the themes of fluidity in adolescence and Toni’s journey. As the worlds collide and tug her to and fro, The Fits tries to impress upon us that it’s always about Toni. In the end, she must choose whichever world feels most welcoming to who she is. And, possibly, the one that chooses her. These choices, by the worlds and Toni, are continually represented by intimate shots of her throughout the film. In one instance, we have a claustrophobic shot of her changing after dance class in a bathroom stall. In between changing into boxing clothes, she constantly peers out from the slits of the stall, listening in on older girls’ conversations about boys as they apply makeup. It’s an interesting setup because it physically illustrates Toni’s ‘outside-looking-in’ moments of understanding femininity as defined by her dance team captains. By giving that idea space on-screen, we’re able to experience how Toni sees and interacts within these different planes of gender performance and understanding.
Being able to see this is incredibly important, because it establishes cinematic space where a young black girl can simply be and struggle to grow up. And rarely do we really get to see that. In an industry that often actively and passively works to strip (black) women of agency and humanity, The Fits feels like a bit of fresh air. This is especially true when some of the larger films of the past decade that depict young black women and girls include titles like Precious to Beasts of the Southern Wild. In both films, ‘character growth’ is based on heavily traumatic situations as the backdrop. Too often are black women’s experiences laden with these kinds of traumas — crucibles of pain and suffering written as ways to shape them or force you to give sympathy to their situations.
Life itself is not without pain. But it also shouldn’t be the sum total. And most importantly: it shouldn’t be the device by which someone’s humanity is made to be understood or relatable. Which is why I find The Fits so interesting. On one hand, you can easily be triggered by the fleeting shots of the jerking bodies and the girls being scared or enraptured by them. On the other hand, you’ll notice that the film almost holds the series of attacks at a distance. They are at once central to the narrative, and then, almost not. The interpretation I choose is that they are an ambiguous play between unexplained magical realism and real world situations where black folks’ health goes by the wayside because racism (Hello there, Flint, Michigan.)
To refer back to my dream analogies: The Fits is a deep dream. It’s at once frightening because of its depth, but also, strangely comforting. It tugs at the nostalgia you feel for adolescence while alluding to the sublime horror of literally becoming at that time — from growing into a new body to experiencing new forms of socialization. And yet like a dream, The Fits doesn’t fully commit to anything, even as it underpins its story with very real themes (coming of age, gender performance, poverty, creative expression, sexism, etc.) and understandings that lead us from beginning to end. Ultimately, these things help make the film palpable without being overtly moralistic or painful or even visually taxing.
But, as I said earlier, this is an art film. So interpretations are about as open as can be. However, I do believe that one unchanging fact about the the film is that it doesn’t lay trauma at your feet and force you to eat it (see: Precious.) Nor does it present you with highly traumatic situations as somehow noble simply because of the dignity of the characters involved (see: Beasts.) The Fits is somewhere else. In its runtime it presents a series of events and situations, some traumatic and some not, bringing you to the most important question: “Who does Toni want to be, really?”
The Fits is available for physical purchase today and is also available on VOD.
The Original Homeboy with a Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. IG | Twitter