Remember the name Anna Rose Holmer, who makes her feature directing debut with this unique and unforgettable mesmerizer. And while you’re at it, keep an eye on Royalty Hightower, the 11-year-old dynamo doing a radiant star-is-born turn as the quietly observant protagonist of The Fits. Holmer, who wrote the screenplay with the film’s co-producer Lisa Kjerulff, and its editor Saela Davis, isn’t much for exposition and there’s hardly any talk in the film’s fleet 72 minutes. Hightower plays Toni, a Ohio kid who hangs around a recreational center in Cincinnati where she works out at the boxing club with her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor). For Toni, doing sit-ups becomes an act of asserting independence.
Things change when Toni’s eye hits on a girl dance troupe that bills itself as the Lionesses, played by the real-life members of a dance team called the Q-Kidz. Dishing about boys and smearing on lip gloss, the Lionesses rep everything tomboy Toni can’t articulate in terms of beauty, power, gender, coordination, confidence and body image. She joins up, becomes pals with another newbie, Beezy (Alexis Neblett), and slowly comes home to a world she never knew before.
In a conventional movie, which The Fits most assuredly is not, we’d be in for an uplifting journey into self-awareness. Holmer’s not having it. She and her gifted cinematographer Paul Yee simply ask us to watch, to catch their rhythms, to let the film play like a ballad that ranges from lyrical to startling. The girls start having seizures, fits that leave their bodies shaking and convulsing for reasons unknown. The score by Stenfert Charles (Last Days in the Desert) provides just the right jangling notes to keep us all on edge. The real world offers lame explanations, everything from contaminated water to sexual hysteria and demonic possession. But this movie won’t squeeze itself into easy categories. Watching the girls defy gravity as they whirl into scary, seductive, hallucinatory patterns, you realize The Fits is more than a transporting film experience. It’s cinema poetry in motion.