To continue with my Milwaukee Film Fest highlights, The Fits has a lot in common with the last film I wrote about, Kaili Blues: Both are directorial debuts, both are lower on plot and higher on immediate visual appeal and both involve supernatural-ish elements that are treated matter-of-factly.
The Fits follows Toni, a young girl who spends days working on her punching chops with her brother, a boxer, at a community center gym. In the opening scenes of the movie, it almost seems Toni spends her entire life at the gym, though the reality of her existence as a whole remains a mystery to us throughout—school and parents are blurred out at every turn. The focus is on Toni, her brother, the other boys who train at the boxing gym and a girls’ dance group that practices at the center called the Lionesses. Adults appear only briefly in roles of authority, but don’t seem to exercise much influence over the children and teens who dominate the screen.
Toni becomes drawn to the Lionesses as she peeks at them performing through a closed door, and thus begins a rising swirl of tension propelled forward by a sparse, spooky, rhythmic soundtrack. At least some of this tension seems to be founded on gender: After joining the Lionesses and being accepted into the group, Toni is seen going back and forth between the boxing gym and the dancing gym. She seems to be the only individual in the center who at one time or another actively participates in both groups but who also watches each group from a distance.
Because the tension seems both gender-based and age-based (as is to be expected, the older girls on the team have a more polished physical presence—if not necessarily more commanding than that of Toni, played with amazing focus by Royalty Hightower), there are certain things that we, as an audience, are conditioned to believe will happen: We believe that the older girls will step up to either bully or mentor Toni. We believe that Toni will develop a complex regarding her body and question her gender identity, after which she will either learn that it’s “okay” to embrace her femininity or become overwhelmed by the cruelty of encroaching adult life.
(We also may believe that race is going to play some significant part: After all, all these girls are black, aren’t they? Isn’t a film with racial minorities in it obligated to say something about said minorities as a people? Answer: Nope.)
None of the above things necessarily happen: There’s evidence, again, of a certain gender tension in Toni and her perception of the gender roles around her, but the film never gives us a clear answer on all that. What happens instead is that girls start randomly going into convulsions (“fits”) on the dance floor. This is terrifying at first, and I don’t want to reveal too much and ruin the movie for anyone by explaining how the fits progress. Suffice it to say that it’s hard as a viewer, very hard, to not see the fits as an analogy for approaching womanhood (menstruation, femininity, sex, pregnancy, etc.).
I loved this film enough that I wanted it to give me more, I wanted it to go further. As is, it’s highly open to interpretation, and I disagree with filmmakers and reviewers who think this is always inherently a good thing at every level. Being multi-faceted is good, I think, and so can be teasing an audience’s expectations. Being open to interpretation in the sense of meaning is also good, but I feel The Fits drops the ball a bit when it comes to story. By making a film, you’re already forcing a certain point of view on an audience, and The Fits is definitely not shy about putting your face right in front of a highly palpable and specific fictional world, so I wish it could have been so bold when it came to plot.
I recognize that it would have been tricky to do this without falling into the trap of some convention or other, and perhaps it’s better as is than risking a nosedive. But I think the ending, for not trying harder to be its own, ultimately falls back into a more conventional mood. If I’m more critical of this film than some other festival favorites I bring up, it’s because I find it more worth picking apart: It has so much in it that it’s incredibly interesting to think and write about.
My favorite interpretive thread drawn from the film that I think could possibly have been expanded upon is that all the gender flags (signifiers) in The Fits, including the fits themselves, are not representative of the inevitable trials or wonders of the female experience itself, the way it might seem, but of general gender “hysteria.” That is, not biological or learned gender-conforming behavior but the shared animal impulse to conform, which is not in itself necessarily a good or bad thing.
When Toni dances, she moves her boxing-trained body in a way that’s both combative and oddly graceful, but neither typically masculine nor feminine. She doesn’t seem to particularly want to look or act like the other girls, but she does seem to want to belong with them, and not even necessarily because they’re female. This, I think, is the source of the tension and also the strongest thematic point of the movie. The Fits defies expectations by avoiding being a typical film about gender—and the tricky pre-sets that often exist even in stories meant to explore gender—and instead moves in a lighter, more mysterious and compelling direction, one that may not be as fraught with conflict as it first seems.
While playing against our conditioned expectations of conflict, The Fits outdoes itself with incredible atmospheric elements, visuals and sound. It’s fascinating to watch, beautifully eerie as it depicts the unknown territory of adolescence enclosed in a small space. Within it is a great, complex story, a much more interesting one than you see in your average movie, and it’s fantastic to be able to glimpse it.