As soon as you designate a feature as "a student film," there's an immediate pejorative attached, but that's not my intention. Technically, The Fits is a student film: It was developed through the Venice Biennale Cinema College program, a micro-budget (reportedly 150 thousand Euros) and micro-timeline (a year from conception to premiere) feature project for first- and second-time feature filmmakers.
But what's praiseworthy in its "student-ness" is an amazing sense of experimentation, resisting the structural conventions of many American narrative films, whether independent or out of Hollywood. The Fits is a calling card for its creator, Anna Rose Holmer, the signalling the arrival of a brand new talent.
Latonya aka Toni (the magnetic Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old tomboy who spends almost all of her time at the local community centre—does she ever go to school?—with her brother and his friends. They're into boxing, and so is she, sparring with whoever will take her on. It's a masculine environment, but Toni silently yearns for the glamour and excitement of the all-girl dance troupe, the Lionesses (Cincinnati's Q-Kidz dance team) who practice routines in an adjacent gym.
The Fits celebrates movement and the limitless energy of children as it tells its story, the prowling, circling camera keeping Hightower in the foreground while sharing all the chaotic activity around her. Toni tirelessly applies herself to dance. As she loses her connection to the boys and is slowly accepted by the troupe, an unexplained contagion of seizures afflicts the older girls. What's causing it? Is Toni somehow responsible?
This is a film about being an outsider: Toni wants the sense of connection she sees between the dancers, but as she approaches it, trying on the clothes and branding of the girls—including temporary tattoos, nail polish, and earrings—she sees what she's losing by walking away from the boys. The branding doesn't mean anything—she scrapes it off as soon as it sets, pulling out the infection-causing earrings.
The seizures become a rite of passage for the girls—standing in for sex, for menstruation, for a loss of innocence—and when she sees her younger peers experience them (maybe even faking them in order to be included), she doesn't want it anymore. But she can't go back.
The final scene, a magic realist celebration of the dance, may signify Toni's acceptance of these inevitable changes, an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em conclusion. Its joyfully ambiguous, a break from the brooding vibe of most of the film—a dread accentuated by the terrific camerawork, borrowing tropes from horror films, and a soundtrack heavy on beats and atonal horn signatures.
Beyond the skill and imagination of its writer-director, The Fits is also testament to the importance of casting. Hightower barely speaks in the first act of the film, but the camera loves her expressive face and body. She carries the film in the same way Christian Bale did Empire Of The Sun and Ellar Coltrane did Boyhood. It's a lot to expect from children, but it's also a credit to the filmmakers that they can draw such an intuitive performance from their stars, to where the films become a life support system for the lead character.
The Fits was well-received by Friday night's Carbon Arc audience, inspiring plenty of conversation in the corridor afterward. Though the first two screenings of Carbon Arc's 2016 fall season had two shows, this coming Friday will only have one: the 7pm screening of My Love, Don't Cross That River, a heartbreaking South Korean documentary about a couple who've been married for eight decades. Please join us for that, and for Saturday night's Nocturne screening.