The Fits (ND/NF Review)
When looking at a festival like New Directors New Films, a question comes to mind: what should be expected from a first film? There are plenty of cases where a director’s first outing can produce a stunning masterwork, but it would be absurd to put those expectations on every single debut. It might be best to look at first features, especially within the context of a festival like ND/NF, through a bigger scale rather than scrutinizing each title on its own merits. Sometimes a first film can establish a new, distinctive, and underdeveloped voice, showing off filmmakers brimming with a potential that might not be fully realized just yet.
From what I’ve seen at ND/NF this year, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits feels like an ideal film for this festival. It starts out with a shot of Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl doing push-ups in a boxing gym. She goes to the gym with her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) every day after school so he can look after her, and while her tomboyish looks suggest she enjoys being surrounded by so much masculinity, it soon becomes apparent that she would rather be doing something else. One day, she discovers an all-girls dance crew practicing nearby and immediately gets hooked, signing up despite having no experience with dancing.
Holmer sets her film up as the story of an alienated youth but relies on form and texture to establish Toni’s feelings of isolation. The visuals and sound design represent Toni’s heightened perspective on the world, and without using much dialogue, Holmer lets viewers pick up on her protagonists’ internal issues through the film’s rigid and well-defined style. Using static shots, shallow focus and off-kilter framing (along with a great score from Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans), Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee create a tone that reflects Toni’s detachment from both the world of the boxing gym and the dance crew (a personal favourite: the way Holmer frames a group of boys at the gym going to town on a pizza, making them look more like animals fighting over a meal).
And as beguiling as Holmer’s film might be, it isn’t always effective. The detached vibe sometimes makes Toni too vague and undefined to understand what she might be feeling within a specific scene, a feeling that can make The Fits seem like it’s missing something that can elevate it into something truly special. That almost comes when Holmer introduces a mysterious plague that starts causing girls in the dance group to suffer intense seizures, an affliction that Toni seems to be immune to (which only contributes further to her feelings of solitude). The tonal shift doesn’t do much to address the film’s more opaque qualities, but it does make some of Holmer’s themes—like the fear that comes with entering adolescence—more resonant.
Still, even if The Fits doesn’t coalesce into something more than the sum of its parts, its flashes of greatness (of which there are many) certify Holmer as one to watch. On a moment-by-moment basis, The Fits remains compelling, and at several points Holmer achieves a synergy that combines form and content into something truly singular. It’s the sort of film that frustrates in a good way, making you wish it lived up to the immense amount of promise brewing just underneath each frame. Whether or not Holmer’s next project lives up to that promise remains to be seen, but I know that I’ll be eager to see whatever she does next.