By Kim Bennett
The Seattle Medium
The Fits is an enigmatic coming-of-age film about an 11-year old African-American girl named Toni. Played by Royalty Hightower, who turned 10 years old during shooting, Toni is fiercely dedicated to her boxing training with her older brother, but when she catches a glimpse of the Lioness Dance Team’s practice, she is drawn into to this new world and eager to fit in.
As Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits takes a different approach to the standard coming-of-age story, following Toni as she transforms before our eyes – from boxer to dancer, loner to team member and child to adolescent. Her journey is not portrayed in typical fashion. We follow Toni as she joins the Lioness Dance Team and witness how she and the other girls experience a mysterious ailment that strikes girls on the team one by one. The condition, termed “the fits,” hits without warning with uncontrollable spasms and fainting spells.
In an exclusive interview with the Seattle Medium, producer and co-writer Lisa Kjerulff sheds light on the intricacies of the film.
“Anna [Director/Writer/Producer] had the initial idea in terms of a project that she wanted to direct. She had been doing a lot of research and became interested in these episodes of mass psychogenic illness, which also has been called teen mass hysteria,” said Kjerulff.
These episodes or “fits” can be seen as a metaphor for the distinct change that every young girl eventually goes through as she moves from child to adolescent as demonstrated in the film with each girl experiencing “the fits” differently. It is a singular process to the individual and centers on the process of discovering one’s identity and figuring out who you are and how you fit into society as a whole.
“We really wanted to explore adolescence before she became fully sexualized, Kjerulff explained. “There are so many films about teenagers and it’s about their sexuality with regards to somebody else like a male.”
“In our discussions about growing up, when your body starts to change it’s not necessarily with regards to your sexuality as a sexual object or with regards to other people,” she continued. “There is certain amount of individual and personal reckoning that you go through as things begin to change and you become more aware of yourself and your body with regards to the social world around you.”
The film is a visually interesting and crisp production with the West End of Cincinnati and the community there playing a large role. Shot at the Lincoln Recreation Center and featuring young people from the Queen City Boxing and Q-Kidz Dance Team for all of the roles, The Fits has an air of realism infused with a bit of wonder.
With isolated dance scenes showcasing the hip hop and majorette style seen on Lifetime’s Bring It! reality show, The Fits is considered a dance film, but not in the way one would expect.
“We wanted it to be a dance film that involved this mass hysteria. This idea of these uncontrollable movements being actual choreography, contrasting the very specific movement of dance with the uncontrollable,” Kjerulff says.
“I feel like dance is very much an interpretation of feelings and life. I feel like body language is a performance in a way, especially as an adolescent or teenager trying to fit in,” Kjerulff continued. “There is so much performance that goes on in trying to figure out who you are within the context of a group.”
In collaboration with the Q-Kidz Dance Team choreographers Mariah and Chariah Jones, along with movement consultant Celia Rowlson-Hall, paid great attention not only to the dance scenes, but also to overall body movements to tell the story.
“We worked with Celia Rowlson-Hall, who is also a choreographer and director, and she came on as our movement consultant,” says Kjerulff. “She really worked with Royalty and the rest of the girls creating their fit, designing them in isolation and creating a structure for those fits while allowing them to still be free movement.”
“She also worked with Royalty on how she held her body at any given point in the film,” she added.
Movement as a storytelling tool was not limited to the actors’ body movements, but is also evident in the filming of The Fits. Shot by Paul Yee as his first feature film, there were moments when it felt like a music video. With a mix of reality and fantasy, the artistry comes through in the visual aesthetics.
“Throughout, the idea was seeing everything through Toni’s perspective,” says Kjerullf. “When we had the wide shoots, when she was separated from the background, we wanted to explore the sense of isolation that she’s feeling through our camera movement and our camera angles. It’s really about finding that perspective in Toni and seeing what she’s seeing and feeling as much as possible what she’s feeling in each moment.”
For a surprisingly existential look at what it’s like to be a young girl on the cusp of adolescence trying to figure things out, The Fits offers a unique glimpse at that internal journey through movement, music and stunning visuals.
The Fits will be showing at the SIFF Cinema Uptown July 8 – 14 at 2:20 PM, 4:15 PM, 6:00 PM and 7:40 PM. For more information go to: http://www.siff.net/cinema/fits.