Rocky, 1976. Creed, 2015. A pair of iconic boxing movies where our leading men, Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan, tear through city streets sporting grey, hooded tracksuits, with the sounds of Bill Conti and Ludwig Göransson carrying them like the wind. The Fits, 2016. A boxing movie, among other things, where eleven-year-old Royalty Hightower stands atop an overpass similarly dressed, as Enemy’s Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans augment a long, unbroken take with a bizarre swirl of heart-pounding percussion and a unsettling synthetics. First-time director Anna Rose Holmer keeps our eyes transfixed on Royalty, her camera unwavering as the duo create a sense of cinematic enormity entirely through movement; a pulsating dance routine punctuated by punches, from a girl trapped between worlds.
This pivotal scene, about halfway through The Fits’ mere seventy-minute runtime, is when the film steps onto a pedestal of greatness, evoking a kind of musical and visual energy unlike anything since Holy Motors. Eleven-year old Toni’s journey begins in the boxing ring with her older brother, whom she trains alongside and assists with the custodial duties of her local community center. She’s the only girl with gloves on, and her gaze often veers towards the team of young ladies next door as they practice their dance routines, sometimes in unison and sometimes to challenge each other, another opportunity for Toni to prove herself.
Motion is the key through-line in this corner of Cincinnati. As Toni’s two worlds are separated by windowed doors she often peers through, they collide as her steadfast stillness is contrasted with the jubilance of the dancers she comes into contact with. Upon joining the dance troupe, her rhythms are completely out of balance with the rest of her teammates (but for her punches and kicks), but it’s these internal rhythms that Holmer externalizes through her creeping camera, with a score of claps and strings that feels like an equal extrapolation of the internal motion of competitors. It all comes to a head when the senior members of the dance team begin experiencing mysterious fits; some sort of terrifying endemic that manifests differently in each of them.
Toni and her young teammates exist within gendered constraints, and they keep rubbing up against one another in their collective search for self. Their identities become intrinsically tied to the fits, a simultaneous disease and right of passage akin to a “dancing plague” or mass psychogenic illness. A sociological conversion disorder transformed into adolescent confusion, presented both alluringly and with the skilled hand of a seasoned horror maestro, throwing the film’s own internal rhythms well out of step, albeit with exact intention.
Young Royalty herself is revelatory in the role, constructing walls of strength and composure that don’t allow their cracks to surface until she’s in the thick of it, overwhelmed by her own competitive spirit. Her challenge is as physical as it is emotional, selling conviction through absolute stillness until she calls upon the magnetic energy that emanates from her like an aura. Holmer tasks her with embodying the most oblique of approaches to momentary mysteries of coming-of-age, and the film’s all-black cast of mostly young women perform their hearts out, mixing desire and innocence while housed in a mere five or six locations, each literally and figuratively echoing mood and time and place.
By the time it comes to a close, even within the constraints of its locale and budget, it’s spiritually transportive.