“The Fits” is a film not so much about the performance of dance, but about dance and movement as the language of the film itself. It shapes both the characters and the narrative. The actual dance pieces performed in the film were only part of the story—the punctuation. As the director Anna Rose Holmer states in her notes on the film, “I directed ‘The Fits’ as a dance film, considering the movements of the actors and camera to be choreography in each scene.” The movie’s subject is Toni, a tiny 11-year-old who is coming into her own as an adolescent and starting to become conscious of her own identity as a person.
When we meet Toni, she is boxing at a community center gym with her older brother Dante. It is clear that they have a close relationship and that Dante is one of the few, if not the only, meaningful emotional connection that Toni has at this point in her life. She is an extension of her loving brother’s identity. His friends are her friends; his avocation is her avocation. So she boxes and helps out at the community center, just like Dante does. And she dresses like Dante, in tanks, sweats and sneakers. Other than that, the pretty, diminutive pre-teen is, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
There is also a girls’ dance troupe at the community center. They form the backdrop to Toni’s life at the gym, the background noise. The viewer gets the feeling that these girls are the type of girls who Toni’s family—who other than Dante remain offscreen—may have perhaps warned her about. Communities from time immemorial, have often looked askance at women who perform dance. We at first get the sense that Toni thinks she knows these girls and indeed fears them. In fact, she knows nothing about them. That moment comes, though, when Toni is caught off guard, and it is as if she is seeing the girls for the first time. They are an intriguing admixture of passion, femininity, resilience and healthy self-respect. Though they’re not as loud as she’s probably been taught to believe, she suddenly hears them better. Though they’re not as audacious as she’d been led to believe, she suddenly sees them more clearly and perceives something of herself in them. She auditions for the dance squad and gets in— barely.
When she first starts out with the squad she is the last person to leave the locker room for practice. Instead of hurrying out, she does a slow grapevine toward the exit. Her ubiquitous grey sweatpants are her cocoon as she studies the sundry colorful pieces of clothing the girls have left behind in carefree abandon, a sartorial trail guiding her to her own destiny. Like many solitary people, she becomes friends with someone with the gift of loquacity, Beezy, played by Alexis Neblett. Beezy is more your typical talkative, excited about everything 11-year-old. She is spry and spontaneous, whereas Toni is lumbering, though not ungraceful.
Soon after Toni lands her spot on the squad, the members, starting with the squad’s captain, start having mysterious fits that manifest almost like epileptic seizures, except none of the girls have epilepsy. None of the boys ever gets them. Initially, everyone becomes afraid of being the next girl to experience the seizures until they realize that there are apparently no other effects of the minutes-long seizures, except a little extra attention. So the seizures morph into a badge of belonging. Getting them is now a matter of fitting in with everyone else.
As for the fits themselves, the fact they affect only the girls indicates symbolism about the girls’ maturation into womanhood. In the same way that menstruation is something that girls both dread and anticipate as a rite of passage and badge of honor, these fits function in much the same manner in the film. The anxiety for the “late bloomers” is also very similar. Toni is not immune to the feeling of wanting to belong. Beezy also becomes a victim and Toni can only sit and listen as Beezy commiserates about the experience with another girl on the squad. The viewer feels her inner conflict. When Toni eventually gains first-hand experience with the seizures, the viewer has to wonder if Toni’s episode was manufactured. Did Toni so want to be able to bond over this experience that she faked having the fits? Did any of the other girls? We can’t know for sure. But how many of us have faked knowledge of something we have no clue about to fit in? Toni has finally found a place where she can not only belong but also use as a guide for finding herself as a young woman. Some things are hard to let go of and a few minutes of pretending to have a fit can seem a small price to pay, especially to an 11-year-old.
Apart from the beautiful physicality of the girls dancing, the movie is pleasing in a larger way. Novelist Zadie Smith has said, “Black culture is a house with a thousand rooms, with windows looking out on so many views.” This film protagonist is testament to the incipient recognition of the varied lives, cultures, proclivities and personalities of Black girls and women. “The Fits” implicitly acknowledges that the Black female community intersects with other female communities in our likewise infinite ways of being and seeing life.
“The Fits” is currently playing in select theaters. Check theater listings for location and times. It will be released on a number of digital platforms Aug. 16 and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray Sept. 13.