The Fits: Talk to Me, by Scott Nye
With the rise of microbudget filmmaking and streaming platforms, greater now are the opportunities for microlength features running 80, 75, sometimes even under 70 minutes. As audiences continue to insist they have less and less time at their disposal, and movies still demand the same total focus and attention they always have, these small – in every sense of the word – films fill an important void, giving sharply-focused, contained, personal stories to audiences who might not have the time or inclination for a 150-minute opus or a 13-hour TV season. Anna Rose Holmer’s 72-minute The Fits is practically a long short, so specific are its concerns and scope of story, but the film is so alive and attuned to its characters, so decisive in every shot and cut, that it feels as rewarding as any longer effort competing for your attention.
Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends her afternoons training as a boxer with her older brother at the rec center where he works. Not even old enough to walk herself home, she seems to have reflexively adopted his world as her own, but looks to expand it when she catches a glimpse of the local dance team practicing at the gymnasium. She joins, but has difficulty keeping up and fitting in. Already branded a tomboy, she doesn’t pick up the routines as quickly as the other new girls, especially Beezy (Alexis Neblett), a lively girl about her age whom she quickly befriends. Nature has its own course to take when the older girls start experiencing violent, near-epileptic episodes.
Holmer’s smartest decision may lie in the near-complete absence of adults in the film. Glimpsed on the news, but only otherwise seen out of focus in the background giving instructions (as a coach, or a school administrator), this is a more dramatic rendering of the way Bill Melendez abstracted older voices as a series of noises in the Peanuts films. All Toni has is the community of kids, and the world is only incrementally less intimidating to those later on in years. They’re still stuck with major boy problems, the vulnerability of being a young woman (or, for the few boys in the film, the trap of machismo), jockeying for a certain degree of authority and recognition from their peers. As is true for many at that age, the world seems to hardly exist outside of this small community. And certainly for Toni, the options available to her are defined only by this rec center – hang with the boys and box, or hang with the girls and dance.
Once “the fits” start hitting, matters only get worse for her, as young women particularly socialize their biological development, a default means of communication that not everyone is open to. Naturally withdrawn, only around Beezy is Toni comfortable opening up, running wild, and letting her guard down. Now she’s shut out from what seems like a universal experience. Holmer does lovely work planting us firmly within Toni’s perspective, rarely elevating the camera above her eyeline and keeping the focus tight around her and her immediate surroundings. When the widescreen frame does account for others, it almost feels like a prison, and Holmer is exceptionally attuned to the way blocking the background heightens the psychology of her foreground, especially during Toni’s audition.
Holmer made a major gamble betting on such a young cast to carry her film, the rewards are considerable in both Hightower and Neblett. They play off one another very well, Hightower all pent up nervousness and stumbled speech and Neblett fearless in her self-expression. Much of the dialogue in The Fits is communicated with body language, complementing or contradicting or emboldening whatever the characters may (or, just as often, may not) say. Holmer has spoken about how her experience producing the excellent documentary Ballet 422 gave her insight into the specific ways in which people speak to one another physically, which she has expanded here well beyond the dance floor into everything from janitorial work to running to simply standing – everyone is constantly making some kind of declaration about themselves or their environment. As a declaration of a new narrative filmmaker, The Fits is a powerful, incisive, and thrilling one.