I see Toni. She is looking directly into a mirror as she does sit-ups in a boxing gymnasium in Cincinnati. Yet, phenomenologically, I experience her looking directly into my gaze upon every ascent, her lips slowly moving as she counts aloud her progress. In this moment—the opening scene of filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut The Fits—we are two strangers who have suddenly locked eyes as I stare at the screen and she stares directly back. In this moment we are time travelers. I see Toni as she was/is/always will be, when The Fits originally premiered in Venice in 2015 before appearing at Sundance in January 2016. It is now 2021 and Toni has not changed a bit in the six turbulent years since I first experienced this beguiling film.
I am absolutely captivated by The Fits, by Toni, by cinema itself. I keep returning to this film, wholly drawn in by the gravity of Toni’s orbit within the on-screen universe. Great cinema like The Fits is emotionally contagious, allowing the audience to not only see the on-screen Other but to catch a genuine sense of their experienced reality, to feel what it is to be the Other in their world while still honoring the Other’s autonomy.
I see Toni. Toni sees me. Toni sees that I see her. I see that she sees me, and in this I see myself. All this happens simultaneously in a matter of seconds during the opening scene as our collective gaze crosses the invisible barriers of time and space through the screen which is at once a mirror and a portal. This transcendent gaze transgresses the limits of the frame, mysteriously entering in through my senses—my eyes, my ears, my whole body—until it pervades my very soul. This is not a breaking of the fourth wall; it is a mystical rupture of the boundaries of reality.
The Fits is the most divisive film I have ever recommended to friends and family. I’ve yet to receive a reaction of indifference—they either love it or they hate it. I’ve heard that it’s too long, that its 72 minutes should have been reduced to make for a better short film. I’ve heard that it’s too short, that it should have expanded its ideas into the more conventional 90+ minute runtime. I’ve heard the generic labels of “Drama,” “Mystery,” “Coming-of-age,” “Thriller,” “Horror,” and even “Fantasy” used in descriptions (IMDb oddly categorizes the film under “Music”).
To be sure, it’s an evocative film, provoking multiple interpretations for what it is “about.” Like an audiovisual Rorschach test, it prompts strong first impressions which can lead to further, deeper analysis. Yet unlike said Rorschach test, The Fits is not merely a content-less blank slate upon which the viewer can project their own ideas and thus better understand themselves. The film has something significant to say for itself—it has a perspective, its own interpretation of the world. The Fits speaks not in semantics but in image, sound, and movement.
Some viewers claim the allegorical aspects are too neat and tidy, too simplistic, too obvious. “It’s clearly about the transition from girlhood to womanhood,” they say. And I agree; yes, it does seem to be about burgeoning female sexuality, along with the social complications this transformation elicits. Yet others have told me that the film is too opaque in its story-telling, too aloof with its near-silent central character, and too unsatisfying with its conclusion. “It never explains what caused the seizures?,” they ask incredulously, referring to the eponymous “fits” which have mysteriously plagued an all-girls dance team in the Cincinnati recreation center adjacent to the boxing ring where we first see Toni. And I agree; yes, it doesn’t offer simple solutions or answers even as it intentionally provokes a sense of dis-ease through its ambiguous formal choices.
No explanation is given because explanations are not the point. The Fits doesn’t seem interested in providing a resolution to its mysteries. Yet it’s not a “puzzle film” in the vein of Christopher Nolan or the avant-garde surrealism of David Lynch. Instead, The Fits offers us a rich sense of the uncanny within an ostensibly ordinary context. The film both is and is about what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “limit-experiences,” which are human encounters with the horizon of knowledge and material reality, or immanence colliding with transcendence. These are those ineffable peak moments in life which include not only death, suffering, and hatred, but also creation, grace, and love. They are the mysteries of existence itself, the miraculous moments which are often encountered within the mundane, what Ricoeur called the “fantastic of the everyday.”
So, which is the greater mystery: an epidemic of violent seizure-like fits which inexplicably spreads through a girls’ dance troupe? Or the human experience of sexuality, of puberty, of adolescence, of being itself? The Fits honors both mysteries as mysteries, inviting us to encounter them not through proposition or exposition, but through affect and empathy.
I see Toni. She is slowly walking towards the overpass, her athletic gray sweatshirt and sweatpants blending into the wintry concrete environment. The 11-year-old girl (portrayed by then-9-year-old Royalty Hightower in what is one of the strongest on-screen child performances I have ever witnessed) is a tomboy boxer who has recently joined the Lionesses, an elite all-girls dance team at the local community center where she trains alongside her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor). Intrigued by the powerful movements of the collaborative sport, the silently observant Toni attempts to assimilate into the dance team. She is disciplined and determined, her boxing background helping her train her body to match the dynamic choreographed moves. The male boxers in the ring and the female dancers on the floor are similar in their driven athleticism even as they are portrayed as being worlds apart. Toni is torn between these gender-coded realms of male and female; the camera often frames her in doorways and hallways, liminal environments linking the two domains. The purple T-shirt she constantly wears further suggests an in-between-ness—she is clothed in a blend of blue and pink as she seeks her place within a gender binary. Indeed, the film’s title carries a dual meaning, that of the seizures and that of the innate, overwhelming human desire to fit in.
As she ascends the stairs of the overpass bridge (another liminal space), the film score quietly and slowly builds with a metronomical rhythm of handclaps. All alone in this elevated transitional environment, Toni begins the routine of the “clap back call,” a choreographed dance presented earlier to the “crabs” (i.e., the new tween girls) by the two teenage team captains, Legs and Karisma (Makyla Burnam and Inayah Rodgers). It didn’t go well the first time, with Toni awkward and off-rhythm in her movements (except the punches—she’s a boxer, after all). But Toni has been watching Legs and Karisma carefully, the camera often focusing on her wide, observant eyes. Following one practice, she watches the older girls discuss boys and periods from the safety of a bathroom stall, seemingly unwilling to disrobe in front of the others in the locker room. She will later witness Legs, then Karisma, collapse during dance practice and suffer a kind of convulsive attack or seizure. It’s frightening for both Toni and the audience as we are confronted with the disturbing inexplicability of such a phenomenon.
For now, as she practices on the bridge, Toni has a rare grin on her face, the joy and comfort in her own body observable as she combines dance moves with boxing techniques, the rhythmic score serving as a kind of sonic affirmation and punctuation. In this moment, she is happily in between: between boxers and dancers, between affinity and autonomy, between who she is and who she is becoming.
It’s impossible to satisfactorily classify The Fits. What is its primary genre? Who is this film made for? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a clear target audience, nor is it at all concerned with such market-based questions. On the surface, it’s a story about a girl trying to fit in with her peers. Toni playfully runs around the community center with newfound tween friends Beezy and Maia (Alexis Neblett and Lauren Gibson) like the children they are. She pierces her own ears at their encouragement, yet later removes the earrings, seemingly uncomfortable with the feminine ornamentation. She dutifully helps her older brother clean up the gym, mopping the floor while the bubbly Beezy frolics around her with childlike abandon. She sneaks a peek at the troupe’s new uniforms with Beezy, then accidently makes Beezy pee her pants when she jokingly scares her in the darkened gym. “You won’t tell?” the embarrassed Beezy asks. Of course not. Toni will keep her new friend’s confidence.
Running through hallways, breaking rules, keeping secrets—it’s all the typical stuff of teenage tales. We’ve seen evocative female-led coming-of-age movies before (the masterful films of Sofia Coppola and Céline Sciamma come to my mind). Yet formal clues indicate that there is something beyond the on-screen events, something disquieting or eerie. The pacing is methodical, the dialogue sparse, eschewing exposition or explanations; we see little of the exterior world beyond the community center and hear very little of the girls’ interior worlds, particularly Toni’s. The story is told almost entirely through movement and action, a choreography between characters and the camera’s eye. The framing is formally deliberate even as the film maintains characteristics of social realism: on-location setting in the urban margins, non-professional actors, documentary-like cinematography, and a lingering focus on ordinary objects and environments. The community center setting is at once massive and claustrophobic, its cavernous gymnasiums and tight concrete hallways creating an observable tension between freedom and imprisonment. Even though it’s all quite familiar, something about it feels otherworldly.
One formal dimension which generates this sinister subtext is the sound. The Fits would essentially be a silent film were it not for the pronounced sounds of breathing bodies and corporeal rhythms, both diegetic and non-diegetic. The musical score is primarily unnerving woodwinds and horns in jazzy, free-form bursts, which imbues The Fits with the underlying tone of a thriller or even horror film. In this, there are apt parallels between The Fits and another perplexing unclassifiable film: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. The musical score of Picnic is as haunting as it is beautiful, combining church organ and pan flute—the sacred and the profane—to create a genuinely spooky dream-like sonic landscape. Both present us with alluring mysteries, then refuse us any answers. In both films, there is a direct link between societal anxiety and female sexuality, between the ordinary real world and a transcendent other-world, with the sound design operating as the bridge.
To emphasize this ordinary “real world” dynamic, Holmer collaborated with a real-life Cincinnati dance team, Q-Kidz, in order to cast the tweens and teens that inhabit the film world. The film crew lived on location and invited the girls to view themselves as “co-authors” of their characters. Inspired by historical cases of female mass hysteria and conversion disorder, Holmer has described the film as a “meditation on movement” which “juxtaposes the precise, powerful, and intentional movements of drill with subconscious, spontaneous, and uncontrolled movements of collective hysterics.” We see this juxtaposition between the collective choreographed moves of the dance team alongside their individual chaotic “fits.” The fits’ symptoms are wholly distinct to each individual girl, and the event is generally seen in an obscured subjective view from Toni’s perspective; as the audience, we never really get a clear view of what’s happening. When the girls discuss the experiences afterwards, their descriptions are entirely different, with the only common aspects being the suddenness of the fit itself and the apparent lack of any ongoing medical complications. Each fit was designed between the individual actress and the choreographer without the involvement of the rest of the cast members, making each episode unique in symptoms, depiction, and reaction.
For all of their apparent differences with each girl (the boys are conspicuously unaffected by the phenomenon), the fits are reminiscent of ecstatic religious experiences, bodies swooning and convulsing in a manner not unlike certain Pentecostal worship services. This adds another layer in how we attempt to understand the already-complex event—are these fits physical or spiritual, natural or supernatural, or a combination thereof? Are we witnessing a psychotic episode, a medical condition, or a demonic possession?
I see Toni. She is standing alone outside in a massive empty swimming pool, the camera circling her while she looks upward to the heavens and gazes at birds flying in natural rhythmic formation above her. She stood there earlier with Maia, discussing whether or not they were scared of what seemed inevitable: that they too would succumb to the epidemic, would “catch” the fits. Now, Maia and Beezy have both experienced the seizures; only Toni remains. In this moment, the film’s final sequence, the shot cuts to a close-up of her bare feet slowly walking the concrete hallways of the community center, a synth-filled soundtrack of feminine voices singing “must we choose to be slaves to gravity?”
Toni’s feet then slowly levitate into the air.
A frisson-inducing montage follows: Toni floats down the hallway until she drops before the frightened troupe; Toni’s fit before the dance team filmed in slow motion; Toni removing her gray sweatshirt on a familiar overpass bridge to reveal a glittery dance uniform as the team joins her in formation; the team performing a routine in various locations with Toni’s smiling face in the mix; culminating with Toni in the midst of her fit falling backwards and staring directly into the eyes of the viewer, an enigmatic gaze with a hint of a smile on her face framed upside down and off-center in close-up, a near-inversion of the opening shot.
In this fantastic limit-experience, we approach the transcendent–immanent horizon. Are these scenes subjectively within Toni’s mind or objectively visible to others? Is Toni’s fit authentic or artificial, a sign of liberation or conformity? Does she really float down the hallway, or is this simply a metaphor presented via the magic of cinema? Is this ending tragic or hopeful, or does it transcend binaries? What do the fits signify? With evidence inviting a conflict of interpretations, it is only clear that Toni’s world (and ours) has been turned upside down.
Much has already been written about “the gaze” and its implications for cinema—we could turn here to John Berger, Laura Mulvey, Judith Butler, E. Ann Kaplan, and bell hooks, among others. In reflecting on the significance of The Fits, I am reminded most of philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s distinction between gazing at an icon and an idol. In his book The Crossing of the Visible, Marion primarily gives his attention to visual art, but he briefly mentions cinema and its unique capacities. Where for Marion television deceives and closes us off to the world, cinema has the capacity to reveal truth about the human condition, even through a fictitious narrative. In this sense, a film like The Fits is true not because it is a documentary of actual events (although it is indeed a cinematic recording of Royalty Hightower and co. performing in front of Holmer’s camera) but because it expands our understanding of the world and our place within it.
Marion suggests that, situated before the profane image or idol, the viewer remains “unseen by an image that is reduced to the rank of an object” which is constituted, at least in part, by the viewer’s gaze. The idol is a dead image, an object the viewer uses for self-pleasure and self-worship. Yet before the icon—which, expanding well beyond Marion’s claims about religious paintings, I suggest may include certain cinematic images—the viewer can feel themselves as seen as the image takes on a mysterious subjectivity. Thus, “the image no longer creates a screen (or, as in the case of the idol, a mirror) since through it and under its features another gaze—invisible like all gazes—envisages me.” In other words, as I gaze at the cinematic icon (in this case, The Fits), the icon itself returns my gaze in a reciprocity of givenness—as I give of myself to the film, the film gives of itself to me. This is so much more than voyeurism or visual tourism; Marion makes the wonderfully audacious claim that this intersection of gazes is a conduit of love, that “love escapes from the image.” For Marion, “it’s not so much that we learn to see the [image] as that the [image], by having given itself, teaches us to see it.” The icon transcends its maker and takes on a life of its own.
And this is what I mean when I say that I see Toni and Toni sees me. Even as Holmer may be considered the “auteur” of the film, The Fits has its own subjectivity and perspective, its meaning going beyond whatever Holmer may have initially envisioned. Through the transcendent gaze made possible by the cinematic screen, I give of myself to The Fits, which in turn gives of itself to me. Perhaps the best word for describing this radical act of mutual self-giving is love. When I encounter a cinematic icon like The Fits (and not all movies are icons—there are plenty of cinematic idols), it’s as if I have recognized a beloved friend I have not seen for many years, our shared gaze and subsequent embrace affirming our appreciation and care for one another. I love The Fits not because it’s an entertaining film, but because it is a mystery and a revelation which continues to teach me how to see. I understand more of the world upon every viewing, for to be is to be seen.