How 'The Fits' Became the Girl Power Movie of 2016

A movie about a young dancer and a series of mass seizures features the breakout performance of the year

Royalty Hightower in 'The Fits,' an indie drama about an epidemic of odd, unexplained seizures among adolescent dancers. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Anna Rose Holmer was browsing through a book on medieval history when she stumbled upon a passage involving seizures. It wasn't just one or two isolated individuals; entire townships were apparently gripped by these convulsive fits. The former NYU film student suddenly found herself wondering: Do these sort of mass epidemics still happen? "I started looking into it," she says, sitting in a downtown New York coffee shop near her alma mater. "And I found some recent occurrences of hysteric outbreaks — a made-up disease shows up on a soap opera, and then local hospitals report lots of patients coming in with those exact same symptoms. Things like that.

"But what was really interesting," Holmer continues, "was that there were a large number of cases that involved groups of adolescent girls where there was a clearly defined social hierarchy. I'd helped produce a documentary about dancers [Ballet 422], and I'd always sort of thought as adolescence as this very complicated dance that young women have to perform — and then it was like this story just immediately fell into place."

From the moment Holmer's incredible directorial debut, The Fits (which begins its wide-release rollout today), introduces its young heroine — an 11-year-old girl named Toni, played by the aptly named Royalty Hightower — counting out sit-ups in a boxing gym, her face inches from the camera, you may start to feel as if you're slipping into an almost trancelike state as well. Following this quiet, intense girl as she works the heavy bag with her older brother in a Cincinnati recreation center, this indie film initially positions itself as a sort of prepubescent Rocky. Then Toni notices a team of dancers practicing next door, and becomes fascinated with their call-and-response, hip hop-influenced drill routines. She slowly finds herself drawn to this insular group of young women — at which point a wave of uncontrollable, out-of-body fits mysteriously starts to afflict the squad's alpha females.

Part XX-chromosome coming-of-age movie, part docuportrait of an inner-city community and part dreamy, dread-inducing allegory about preteen angst as a transcendental state, The Fits' mesmerizing take on the world of these young, gifted and black females feels completely singular in its depiction of finding yourself, your tribe and your bliss. "I don't think that girls get to live on screen in the sort of complex way they do in real life," Holmer says. "There's that moment right before they enter adulthood where they're in negotiation with their bodies and their identities, where they're trying to figure out who they are before they are viewed in an entirely different social context as women. I'd never seen that in a movie before. So I had to make it."

Once Holmer and her cowriters Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff had hashed out a first draft of the script, they began looking for real-life dance groups they could potentially tailor the project to; the idea was to cast all of the young women from one single troupe. It was Holmer who ended up discovering the Cincinnati-based Q Kidz Dance Team on YouTube, which led to her contacting the the group's coach, Marquicia Jones-Woods. The trio had also applied for one of the 12 open spots in the Venice Biennale College's international development-lab program; surprisingly, they were invited to come pitch their project. "We were the American delegates," she says. "We hadn't yet pitched the Biennale board yet when I first talked to Marquicia, however, so we weren't sure about funding. But I flew out there to meet all of the kids, because I wanted them to be involved if this did ended up happening. And that was when I first met Royalty."

Hightower had already been a member of the Q Kidz for three years, and when she first auditioned, the director immediately sensed something different about this self-possessed kid. "I can't really explain what happened when we met," Holmer says, her eyes widening. "There was just an energy about her ... you could see her tuning in to some frequency inside herself. It's rare to find people like that, much less a nine-year-old." Once the Fits team got their Biennale grant and the go-ahead, Holmer relocated to Cincinnati and started actively collaborating with Jones-Woods, now a producer on the project, and the young cast to incorporate their experiences into the story. Hightower started taking boxing lessons and the two of them began to shape Toni from the ground up, using what the director calls "a movement-based vocabulary" to guide her performer along. "She comes from a dance background," Holmers says, "so we started putting it together like it was a dance piece."

According to the actress, however, the crash course in throwing a punch and having to emote on command was a breeze compared to one specific thing she had to accomplish. "The hardest thing was trying to dance badly," Hightower admits via phone, when the young star and Holmer both call in before a promotional Q Kidz performance in New York a week later. She's referring to a scene in which Toni and several newbies have to learn a routine, and the girl can't seem to get in sync. "I kept wanting to lock in with everybody else, but I wasn't supposed to." Much easier, she says, was filming what Holmer reverently refers to as "the shot": a showstopping sequence in which Toni begins practicing her dance on an overpass bridge and suddenly, thrillingly discovers her groove. "We did three takes of that scene, and it still makes me cry to think about it. It's almost like you see this little girl grow up before your eyes; the physical transformation is amazing. it's the entire movie in one shot, and she just nails it."

"Yeah, it's a good shot," Hightower says, shyly.

"Do you remember what was going through your head when you did that?" Holmer asks her.

"That I wished it would stop raining?" Hightower says, tentatively.

"It was your birthday that day," Holmer coaxes.

"Oh yeah!" Hightower exclaims, giggling. "I turned 10. I was hoping there would be cake."

After premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year, Oscilloscope quickly picked up the film for distribution; when The Fits played Sundance last January, it was one of several films featuring African-American protagonists and ensemble casts, and Holmer suddenly found her film becoming part of a larger discussion about race and representation as, outside of Park City's festival bubble, the #OscarsSoWhite discussion was raging online. "We were aware that people were talking about our film in relation to that, yeah," she says. "I mean, why is a story about a white boy growing up a 'coming-of-age movie,' but a movie about an African-American girl is a 'niche film'? To be honest, though, it was never a discussion during the scriptwriting process. So much of the movie came out of the girls and the community, and their everyday experience. It was never the intention to go after race as a subject. We just wanted you to be in that space — and that space is being a 10-year-old black girl in Cincinnati."

She was more interested, she says, in how the film's ending was received, in which the epidemic of inexplicable seizures starts to hit a fever pitch; without saying too much, it's the point where The Fits takes a hard left into magical-realism territory and builds to woozy, almost hallucinatory climax. "I remember having a conversation with my cinematographer Paul [Yee] about this," Holmer says, with a laugh. "And his first reaction was, 'So I just read the last few pages ... what exactly are we seeing here?' The hope was that, when you get to that moment, you start to see the entire film through Toni's perspective. The fact that people at Q&As haven't been saying 'what was that?' but have been more interested in talking about Royalty and everything that happens before that — that was what we hoped for.

"More importantly, the community understood what we were doing with that ending," she says. "And to me, that was the most important part of all of it. It's just as much their movie as mine. Probably more."