While watching Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature film, the outstanding The Fits, I was reminded playing that children’s folded paper fortune teller game. You know the one where there’s a series of numbers and sometimes colors and you pick one. Then, the person who’s running the game kind of pinches the paper together in correspondence with the number you chose or spells out the color and you eventually find out you smell or love some classmate? It’s a fun, clever and mysterious game where it almost seems like hundreds of outcomes are possible. While The Fits is anything but a trifle, the multitude of mysterious and strange layers it holds are at once breathtaking, enigmatic and powerfully uncanny.
On the surface the film is about young Toni (the acting find of the year in Royalty Hightower), a pre-teen African-American girl who’s deeply involved in boxing but is starting to pull away from that sport as a school dance troupe has caught her eye. Yet the film is only sort of about that and from there, a huge swath of interpretations begin to take shape. In fact, the interpretations start taking place the very moment the film fades in on Toni doing sit-ups in the film’s opening moment.
I was at first admittedly a bit confounded by what the film is trying to say. As a white, middle-aged male my cinematic mind has been trained to think any film with a young, black protagonist is going to see that person soon facing issues having to do with growing up as a minority in a marginalized society. To enjoy The Fits, I had to let that go. As a white, middle-aged male I also had to let go of the notion that Toni’s burgeoning sexuality is in play simply because she’s a tomboy who enjoys boxing and is suddenly intrigued by the attractive and popular older girls in the dance troupe. I, like most middle-aged white males in the world, need to let go of many preconceived notions about many, many things as The Fits brilliantly points out. But that’s not to say the film isn’t about those things nor do I think it’s designed to point a shaming finger at cultural norms and representation, even though it manages to do just that.
As the filmmaker Charles Poekel succinctly and astutely pointed out in his capsule review of the film on this very site, The Fits “is about one thing – the experience” and he’s completely correct. But like a Rorschach test or the very best art, The Fits can morph and change with what you bring to the table as a viewer.
Next to me as I write this, I have a messy jumble of notes on the film and to read down the list says probably more about me than the film itself. Some highlights and things I love include the simply fantastic, foreboding and effective soundtrack and soundscape. There’s very little dialogue in the film and the music and sound design do much of the talking (kudos to Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans and Chris Foster).
I love the way the film reminds me of adolescence itself; fun, silly times shaded with impending seriousness and tinged with darkness. I also love the way the entire film seems to take place in its own world, 3-4 locations all at the school the kids attend save a few scenes at Toni’s home, but only the laundry room is shown. I love the way there’s only a handful of adults ever shown onscreen and when they are, their backs are turned or they’re viewed from far away and on high. This is Toni’s world, her eye level, her experience. And, yours.
In my email right now I have a lengthy list of press notes about the film. A bio of Holmer, a statement of her vision, how the cast was found, where the film drew its inspiration. I kind of want none of it, to be honest. I’m still savoring the flavor of the ambiguity and enjoying the mental stroll of remembering the film and wandering down different paths of interpretation. Hell, I didn’t even really want to know if Holmer was white, black, American or Martian. The Fits is a true cinematic pleasure and the less you know going in and the more you let it unspool it’s eerie magic, the better off you’ll be.
I could go on and on about The Fits (and I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre and scary seizures sweeping the student body from which the film draws its name!) but it all boils down to: you need to see this film. This is the kind of film that so rarely gets made and is nearly pure of creativity and artistic vision. When cinephiles bemoan the current state of cinema and the lack of substance and sustenance, The Fits is the kind of film they want to see more of. Want to see more like this? Go see this one.
– Don R. Lewis (@ThatDonLewis)