In several respects, The Fits is a very different kind of film from the others I have considered here. It is the first film directed by Anna Rose Holmer, and was funded with a very low budget ($150,000) from the Venice Biennale College-Cinema Initiative (part of the Venice Film Festival). The film is set in the Lincoln Community Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio, and features a teenage girls’ dance group that is based there, known as the Q Kidz Dance Team: the Q Kidz coach, Marquicia Jones-Wood, was a co-producer on the film. All the actors are amateurs, and the film is just 70 minutes in length: there is little dialogue, and the only locations are in and around the community centre. The entire cast of the film is African-American, although the director herself is white.
The plot centres on eleven-year-old Toni. At the start of the film, she trains with her brother Jermaine in the boxing gym. However, she starts to take notice of the girls’ dance team, the Lionesses, who practice in the adjoining hall: she seems to be assessing whether to join, and eventually tries out for a place. Toni and the other ‘crabs’ who audition are fairly uncoordinated to begin with, but Toni continues to practice the routines on her own. She also befriends two other girls, Beezy and Maia. During practice, one of the team captains appears to have a seizure: she collapses and is hospitalized. The other captain takes over; but later she too has a similar fit. Toni continues to work hard practicing the dance routine. She and Beezy play in the empty building and try on their new uniforms. Like the other girls, they speculate about the seizures, and wonder whether they are caused by some sort of ‘boyfriend disease’.
The supervisor of the dance team says she suspects there may be contamination in the water supply, and the girls are told to drink only from the water cooler in the boxing gym. However, the seizure episodes continue. Maia tells Toni that she wants to know how it feels to have the fits; and later, at practice, she has an episode. Beezy is called in to meet with the doctor and Toni watches through the window as she too begins to seize. Toni skips practice and goes to stand in the empty swimming pool. As she walks back towards the gym, she begins to float in the air. The team watches in shock as she enters the room, floating and flailing her arms about, with her eyes closed. The film cuts between this and shots of Toni and the dance team in uniform performing. Finally, Toni falls to the ground, opens her eyes and faintly smiles.
Like Carol Morley, Anne Rose Holmer was inspired by stories about ‘mass hysteria’; and the film is partly informed by a real case, which occurred in a high school in a town called Le Roy in New York State. As with The Falling and the other films I’m discussing, there is a search for explanation here, both within the community and in the media. As in the Le Roy case, environmental factors (polluted water) are considered and eventually ruled out. The adults – centre supervisors and medical staff who are brought in – seem unable to do anything, and are puzzled that the illness is only affecting the girls and not the boys who use the centre. There is an ongoing debate among the girls about whether the fits are genuine or fake, or perhaps self-induced. As in The Falling, the younger girls compete over who is going to experience them first: Toni’s friend Maia says that she wants to know how it feels, and fits shortly afterwards.
One possibility is that the fits are a response to stress (which appears to be a factor in several reported cases): the girls are coming up for a major dance competition, and it is notably the team captains who are the first to be affected. The dance itself is aggressive and highly rhythmical, but it also entails an extraordinary level of control and self-discipline. There is a striking contrast between the precise, rhythmic repetition of the training routines and the individual irregularity and expressive flow of the girls’ movements when they are fitting, especially in Toni’s final scene.
Nevertheless, no clear explanation is forthcoming. The aura of mystery and uncertainty is accentuated (once again) through the striking sound design and the use of music: while they may be very different from the ‘Gothic’ effects of hooting owls or underground seismic rumbling in the other films, the echoing sounds of the cavernous gyms and the spare, atonal music have similarly unsettling effects. Toni briefly discusses the causes of the outbreak with her friends, and overhears the older girls speculating about it, but the film as a whole is much less reliant on an elaborate script than The Falling, for example. Toni is very much defined as an observer: we repeatedly see her looking into rooms, or framed in windows. She stares intently, as though taking everything in, while struggling to figure it out. Yet unlike in Heavenly Creatures, we are given little indication of her inner thoughts and feelings, or her interpretation of what she sees: we are left to infer from her silence and her blank stare. As we’ll see, the ending of the film is especially difficult to interpret in this respect: it clearly moves beyond realism, as Toni is shown walking on air and levitating in front of the assembled team, yet it refuses any straightforward explanation.
Without labouring the pun, the fits are to some extent about ‘fitting in’. Initially, Toni is shown to be an outsider, or at least a solitary figure. She is the only girl in the boys’ world of the boxing gym. She supports her brother in his part-time job at the centre, mopping the floors and lugging large bottles of water into the gym, but initially she has little interaction with the other girls. She says relatively little, and rarely smiles or shows much facial expression. She observes the older girls from a distance, and only gradually makes friends; she works alone trying to master the routines, and slowly becomes integrated in the team.
However, there are several indications that the fits are also related to the girls’ transition from childhood, and their emergent sexuality. In this respect, the film can be seen to contain elements of the ‘coming of age’ story that recurs in teen movies, not least in dance films (from Dirty Dancing and Footloose through to the more recent Step Up series). Right from the start of the film, Toni is shown closely observing the interactions between the boys in the boxing gym and the older girls on the dance team. At one point, she changes her clothes in a lavatory cubicle as she overhears two of the older girls putting on their make-up and talking about the various boys they are involved with. As I’ve noted, Toni and Beezy speculate about whether the fits are the result of some kind of ‘boyfriend problem’; although the vagueness of this suggests that they don’t entirely understand what might be at stake.
Toni has a child’s body: when she is measured up for her new team costume, the captain comments that she is ‘as straight as a nail’ – although one of the boys later comments that she is ‘growing up fast’. In a series of scenes, she gradually takes on various signs of conventional femininity: she applies nail varnish and a tattoo-style transfer to her arm, and pierces her own ears with a needle in order to insert earrings. However, she later peels off the transfer and the nail varnish, and removes the earrings, claiming that her ears had become infected. As this implies, Toni is ambivalent about the transition to adult sexuality. Likewise, she says she is scared about the possibility that she will be affected by the fits, although she also seems to believe it is inevitable. She argues that her friend Maia ‘wanted it to happen to her’, and there is a sense that she wants it too.
Notably, Toni is the last in her friendship group to have the fits – the others who have gone before are dismissive of her (‘what do you know about it?’) – but when she finally does, her fit is significantly more spectacular than theirs. Shots of her fit are inter-cut with shots of the whole team performing, showing Toni smiling confidently in her sparkling costume: she has become fully integrated with the group. In having her fit, Toni appears to have achieved something – she has made a transition. Yet her final smile to camera is hard to read: is she smiling from satisfaction, or from having successfully pulled off a trick, or is this a kind of knowing smile to the viewer, acknowledging that her walking on air is some kind of fantasy?
This conclusion could be interpreted in several ways. Toni’s movements suggest that, far from being painful, the fit is a kind of ecstatic, out-of-body experience – that it offers a kind of transcendence. As she begins to walk on air, we hear the only song in the film, ‘Aurora’ by Kiah Victoria, which contains the telling lyric, ‘must we choose to be slaves to gravity?’ Immediately beforehand, Toni has been standing in the empty swimming pool outside the community centre, staring up at the birds flying overhead in the open sky. In terms of the conventional coming-of-age story, it could be claimed that she has now ‘become a woman’ – although there is nothing especially sexual about her movements, either in the fitting or in the athletic dance routine itself. Her integration within the team could be read as a positive accomplishment, or merely as a matter of conforming to a particular conventional definition of feminine sexuality. In fitting, and in fitting in, Toni seems to have become in some way ‘empowered’ – although quite what that means remains unclear.
In the critical discussion of the film, much has been made of the fact that the cast is exclusively African-American. This is somewhat unusual – although over the past couple of decades there have been growing numbers of films focusing on black youth, and several notable examples with black children in central roles (Moonlight and Beasts of the Southern Wild, for example). The dance forms featured in the film – drill and step – are often used by black dance teams, but by no means exclusively so: it’s hard to see them as specifically ‘black’ styles. There is no explicit reference to issues of race – let alone racism or ethnic inequality – in the film; despite its documentary feel, we see nothing of the characters’ lives outside the community centre, and there is only passing reference to their families and schools. The young people in the film are not pathologised as being ‘at risk’, or indeed as ‘risky’ to others: there are occasional indications that the surrounding environment is not entirely safe, but in general they appear to be thriving in the institutional setting of the community centre. This may be a heretical argument, but in my view this is a film about female adolescence in general, not specifically about black female adolescence.
The setting and mise-en-scene of The Fits could hardly be more different from the other films I have discussed: there are no dreamy pre-Raphaelite tableaux here, or any self-conscious literary or artistic references. The film’s unsettling air of mystery contrasts with its decidedly un-mysterious setting, and its documentary feel. Yet despite its originality, its representation of adolescent girlhood shares a good deal with the other films – and especially in its ultimate refusal of any easy or simple explanation.