Saturday, March 19, 2016

ND/NF ’16: The Fits

It could be worse. When teenaged girls starting having convulsions in Salem, half the town was accused of witchcraft. In this case, it might merely be environmental toxicity or perhaps peer pressure. The emotional tangle that comes with puberty probably also plays a role in Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Young Toni trains alongside her Golden Gloves contending brother Jermaine and helps him finish his chores around the recreation center near their home in the Cincinnati projects. She is one tough eleven-year-old, but her socialization is a little underdeveloped. Understanding her need for belonging, her brother encourages her to try out for the Lionesses, a competitive dance team that also trains in the center.

Toni duly makes the cut for their preteen auxiliary, despite her dubious sense of rhythm. Of course, she brings the same determination to her practice routines that she did in her sit-ups and pull-ups with Jermaine. However, the team suffers a setback when the captain breaks out into a fit of spasms. She will not be the only one. Several other team members will have similar seizure-like episodes. Unfortunately, there will be enough incidents to force the Lionesses to drop out of what would have been her first competition.

First and foremost, it should be established both Royalty Hightower and Da’Sean Minor are terrific as Toni and Jermaine. Hightower just commands the screen with an intensity beyond her youthful years. Some might overlook Minor’s first-rate work as a result, but he is enormously charismatic and gives a finely nuanced, completely grounded performance.

Frankly, all the kids are spot-on in their roles, which makes the narrative flatness of Holmer's screenplay so agonizingly frustrating. Basically, there seem to be elements of The Breakfast Club mashed together with Todd Haynes’ Safe, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say about the kids’ social and cultural milieu. Adults are conspicuously absent in this world, but it is unclear how much we are supposed to read into that. Far from running amok, both the dancers and the boxers appear to lead very disciplined and structured lives.

Still, Holmer shows admirable restraint handling the fits themselves. There are just enough of them to be a legitimate cause for concern, but not enough to trigger skepticism from the adult coach who belatedly turns up in the third act. As a work of slice-of-life naturalism, Fits is quite successful. Viewers come to understand Toni’s universe is entirely circumscribed by the projects, the rec center, and the bridge connecting them (which happen to be great for stair-step work) and we feel like we know every inch of the latter two.

There are at least two future stars in The Fits and possibly a whole lot more. Unfortunately, the deliberate ambiguities give the film a feeling of incompleteness rather than mysteriousness. Frankly, it wears its first film status (of the narrative feature variety) on its sleeve, but that also makes it a logical fit for New Directors/New Films. Recommended with considerable reservations solely for the performances of its talented, in-the-process-of-being-discovered cast, The Fits screens tonight (3/19) at MoMA and tomorrow (3/20) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF ’16.