The Fits (2015)
Cast: Royalty Hightower, Makyla Burnam, Da’Sean Minor
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Venice Film Festival. For more information visit http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/ and follow La Biennale on Twitter at @la_Biennale.
Likely a euphemism for “fitting in”, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015) is a coming of age story which inventively uses a mysterious event to poetically evoke the experience of acceptance. The story follows a young, female African American who becomes fascinated with the community of the Lionesses, a drill team which appears to her like a family. Presumably influenced by her older brother Jermaine, Toni (Royalty Hightower), a tomboy in roots, spends her time in the boxing ring of their community rec center. Though she seems to enjoy boxing, it is clear that she does not feel a part of the boxing community, a group of older boys who generally ignore her. At a young and curious age, she begins to see the Lionesses as a means of finding her place: a community of friends who accept her. She makes efforts to join them, and shows determination in fitting in and being accepted as one of them.
A usually mobile camera follows her actions, primarily in close-up. In a style typical of independent film, it has a rather rigidly directed rhythm wherein the girl and her perspective is the only one shown. Even subplots involving other characters are touched on by way of her involvement. This method is simultaneously an advantage and disadvantage. The film feels rather simplistic by not allowing other perspectives to join the story, yet this one-dimensional fabric too allows Holmer to square in on the girl in question. Her relatively minimalist aesthetic and sparse use of spaces and props serve this focus quite well, making a seemingly low-budget film appear quite professional.
…[the film’s]one-dimensional fabric too allows Holmer to square in on [Toni]. Her relatively minimalist aesthetic and sparse use of spaces and props serve this focus quite well, making a seemingly low-budget film appear quite professional.
Complementing the sparse aesthetic is a jazzy saxophone soundtrack which, in moderation, is used to build suspense and mystery. When the fits begin to occur, the jazzy music with somewhat dissonant melodies along with thriller-esque sound effects help build a curious atmosphere of anxiety and bewilderment. These tones match perfectly Toni’s psychology, as she is simultaneously terrified and perplexed by the fits. When they begin to happen more regularly, she is caught between a desire to retain control of herself and body and a desire to fit in with the other girls by experiencing the fits for herself.
A circular pan is often used to reveal off-screen action, such as when Toni is watching the dance troupe for the first time, and when she herself experiences the fits. During these moments, off-screen sound and action help feed into the mystery, as it is unknown what the camera will reveal. In general, this technique helps to build suspense before the climactic moment when Toni lets go.
On a lesser thematic scale, the film questions gender stereotypes, as Toni straddles between both an interest in boxing and in dancing. The dance routine she is given has boxing-like moves, such as punching, which forces a kind of conflation of boxing and dancing. She no longer has to choose, as the movements are almost one and the same. Similarly, the seizure like movements of the fits present an uncontrolled muscle response of the subject’s memories; for Toni, this results in a combination of dance and boxing moves, which parallel an earlier scene of Toni practicing on the bridge outside—a definite highlight of the film. As Toni’s interests develop, her feminine nature is drawn by the influence and intimacy of the Lionesses. She pierces her own ears, wears nail polish, and smiles when letting herself be moved by the freedom of dance.
In a remarkable role, Royalty Hightower brings Toni’s nature to life…
Throughout the film, one senses a building of tension. The use of montage, mysterious narrative development, and a suspenseful soundtrack give the impression that something major will occur towards the ending. After hearing the cathartic descriptions of the fits by the other girls, it becomes clear that the major event to occur is Toni’s own passage through this event. The girls speak about it like their first time having sex or their first boyfriend; the event becomes synonymous with community building, as the shared experience brings the girls closer.
Until this point, the film is quite good, though lacking in resonance. But when the R&B song declares “must we be slaves to gravity?” and Toni begins to levitate in a religious-mystic fashion, so begins a powerful and emotionally charged evocation of Toni’s spirit. An accumulative montage of Toni as a Lioness dancing on the bridge, in the boxing arena, the gym, and the pool shows how this experience ultimately transforms her into the person she was meant to be: a Lioness surrounded by the love of her family-community. In a remarkable role, Royalty Hightower brings Toni’s nature to life, as she serenely lays down in fulfillment of her ambitions.
Likely a euphemism for “fitting in”, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits is a coming of age story which inventively uses a mysterious event to poetically evoke the experience of acceptance.
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