'The Fits': Venice Review

The Fits Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A rough-diamond discovery.

Newcomer Anna Rose Holmer's debut is an original reflection on a young African American girl's path from childhood into the exotic social sphere of adolescence.

In Anna Rose Holmer's small-scale but captivating first feature, The Fits, a tomboyish preteen boxer is drawn by forces she can neither articulate nor comprehend to the female empowerment of the drill team that runs practice sessions in the same Cincinnati projects recreational center where she trains. Her involvement in their intoxicating new world brings fear, fascination and strange rites of passage that, while never fully explained, make this a transfixing meditation on gender and self-discovery, distinguished by the dreamy beauty of its visual and movement-based storytelling.

The project was shepherded through Venice's Biennale College - Cinema lab for fledgling filmmakers working within minimal budgets; it should springboard from its launch here into further festival slots, with perhaps some specialized distribution.

In addition to the graceful sense of composition shown by Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee, and the mood-enhancing use of unconventional music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, what the film really has going for it is the director's unimpeachable skill at coaxing unselfconscious performances from a nonprofessional cast. That applies in particular to the gorgeous Royalty Hightower (that name alone is star material), who brings preternatural self-possession and quiet depths to the central role of Toni.

Introduced doing sit-ups as part of her training routine in a boxing gym otherwise populated by boys, Toni is diminutive but lean and strong, her hair raked back into fuss-free twin braids. Her arms are so toned that a younger girl, Beezy (Alexis Neblett), who gives Toni what appears to be her first taste of female friendship, nicknames her "Guns."

Adults exist on the film's margins, barely glimpsed, and Toni's chief guidance comes from her older brother Maine (Da'Sean Minor), a junior boxing champion. She works out with him and his smooth buddy Donte (Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.), jumping rope or socking a punching bag just like one of the guys, albeit remaining an outsider.

Yee's camera gets in close to Hightower — often trailing her from behind like a Dardenne brothers subject — providing remarkable intimacy as we observe through Toni's eyes the thrashing dance moves and fierce struts of the drill team, aptly named the Lionesses. At Maine's suggestion, she overcomes her natural reserve enough to sign up, becoming one of the new girls known as the Crabs. Unlike her routine in the gym, her attempts to master the first basic steps are messy and uncoordinated, though as Beezy points out, she's not the worst of them.

Holmer developed the slender story with editor Saela Davis and fellow producer Lisa Kjerulff, keeping dialogue to a minimum as Toni schools herself in the ways of the Lionesses. She watches and listens as the sexy team captains, Legs (Makyla Burnam) and Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), apply makeup and discuss boys, and practices her drill moves with the same discipline she brings to her boxing workout.

When Legs is gripped by violent convulsions and taken to hospital, followed soon after by Karisma, the group's training for an upcoming citywide competition is suspended. Both girls appear to recover quickly, but the hysterical phenomenon spreads throughout the team as more and more girls are gripped by "the fits." Despite suspicions of a contaminated water supply, authorities are unable to explain the outbreak.

Nor does Holmer pretend to offer an explicit key to the allegory, beyond suggestions of a psychogenic illness in the hothouse incubator of childhood and early adolescence. But as Toni vacillates between her instinctual tendency to stick to the fringes and her burgeoning urge to belong, the film subtly invites open-interpretation readings about the complexity of gender codes and conditioning for young black girls, as well as the anxieties of fitting into a new peer group.

Refreshingly, the writer-director declines to draw the usual picture of poverty, drugs, crime and lack of parental supervision that often seems obligatory with a low-income urban setting. Instead, the film remains tightly focused on Toni as she filters and processes her experiences in an environment both familiar and foreign to her. When she dons her sequined parade uniform and steps into a regimented dance line with a joyous smile, the fantasy images seem to imply that conformity and individuality need not be mutually exclusive.

The Fits is a lovely character portrait, abstract and yet highly evocative, given an other-worldly feel by deft use of slow-mo, sinuous tracking sequences and music that ranges from ambient drones to discordant strings and the percussive claps, clicks and stomps of the drill routines.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Biennale College-Cinema)
Cast: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Da’Sean Minor, Lauren Gibson, Makyla Burnam, Inayah Rodgers, Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.

Production company: Biennale College-Cinema, Yes Ma’am!
Director-screenwriter: Anna Rose Holmer
Story: Anna Rose Holmer, Saela Davis, Lisa Kjerulff
Producers: Anna Rose Holmer, Lisa Kjerulff
Director of photography: Paul Yee
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Zachary Sheets
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Saela Davis
Sales: Mongrel International

No rating, 71 minutes.