Review: 'The Fits'

Newcomer Royalty Hightower shines in moody, coming-of-age tale.
GOOD FIT: Royalty HightowerÕs powerful portrayal of Toni brings gravity to 'The Fits.'

Anna Rose Holmer's directorial debut, The Fits, feels a lot like Creed—a.k.a. Rocky VII—with all the nonsensical commercial movie parts stripped out. This avant garde, long-take, wide-screen view of a young girl training to be part of a dance team avoids the well-trodden path; it's not "empowering" in the athletic shoe-commercial sense.

Toni is an undersized, 11-year-old girl who wants to join the "Lincoln Lionesses," a local dance team. She's played by the remarkable, young and richly named Royalty Hightower, while the Lionesses are portrayed by the Q-Kidz, a step group from Cincinnati's West End.

Little and silent, Hightower doesn't weigh 90 pounds, and yet she has tremendous gravity. Almost all synopses of The Fits refer to Toni as a "tomboy," but really she's an athlete first and foremost: she wears a perpetual game face and keeps her hair tied back in two whiplike braids. Toni has to shake off the nickname "Guns" because of her biceps.

Toni is training hard from the beginning; we first see her head bobbing into the frame as she counts her sit-ups and spars in the ring with her boxer brother. Yet Toni isn't the hunted, monomaniacal machine we expect from all the urban sports movies we've seen. Holmer gives Hightower's Toni time to rest, uttering a theatrical sigh as she lays her head on the boxing ring's rope.

This driven girl gets the encouragement every budding dancer needs—"You're not the worst," says her easygoing friend, Beezie (Alexis Neblett), who is even smaller than Toni. By degrees, the two girls start to be affected by a series of epileptic fits striking down the Lionesses one by one. It's a mystery no one can solve: "It hasn't happened to any of the boys," Toni says. "Yeah, but we're not them," Bianca replies.

Given the situation in Flint, Michigan, we can believe the suggestions the movie makes, that it's the tap water, or perhaps lead plumbing in the youth center. But the crisis never gets louder than the muted, behind-closed-doors arguments at a community meeting, or a television newscaster's reports.

Strangely, Toni begins to long for the experience of one of these epileptic attacks, perceiving it to be a mystery of adulthood. Out of the hospital and back with their fellow dancers, the girls describe what happened to them in very different ways. It's personal to each one of them. And there's a theory Bianca has about the epidemic of fits: "Maybe it's a boyfriend disease."

Cinematographer Paul Yee made the most of a short and inexpensive 20-day shoot; he's captured the radiance of the cast, as in a night scene where Toni and Beezie sneak in to try on the spangly dance uniforms in a dark storage room, their faces illuminated by cellphone glow, the reflection of the gold costumes making their skin gleam. And there's subtlety—tentativeness, really—in the free jazz soundtrack by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

One could think of The Fits as an all-ages movie, but only in the sense that The 400 Blows is about children. Holmer leaves the viewers with questions about the malady striking these young dancers, but she avoids the typical finale of a dance movie—the big het-up competition with some nearby rival school. And she dispensed with the easy contrast of lithe bodies with rough home lives.

What makes a ghetto isn't violence, but the constant possibility of trouble. A frost of cold warning chills The Fits; a sense of danger that never explodes into urban melodrama. The precariousness of Toni's dreams is symbolized by one of her regular roosts, a skinny pedestrian bridge over six lanes of speeding cars. It's Toni's "top of the world"—as in the last shot in Mike Leigh's High Hopes (1988) where the North Londoners climb to a roof to survey their bleak kingdom.

In one moment, Toni is in a park in late spring, looking up at the sky to see a few turkey vultures watching her. When you show the vultures circling overhead a ghetto, you've been honest enough; you don't need to show them landing and dining.

The Fits
1 hour, 12 minutes; unrated
Opens Friday at the Camera Cinemas

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