Working out is overrated, and so is “The Fits,” a new indie film by first time director Anna Rose Holmer. The adrenaline and endorphin rush you get from exercise and activity has been visualized in punishing, stimulating style in war films, boxing films, you name it. But these films channel the sensation of putting yourself through that pain alongside other emotional conflict.
Holmer communicates mood and drama entirely through body language and cinematic techniques, but it’s so devoid of a story or substance (it’s only 72 minutes long) that it feels more like a formless, visual tone poem. Critics have championed the film’s look and feel since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and later as part of Sundance’s New Directors branch, but it’s hardly much more than a slick student film.
When we meet Toni (Royalty Hightower), a skinny, black 11-year-old tomboy, she’s displaying quiet intensity as she does sit-ups while her reflection stares back at her. Holmer films this workout scene and others of her jump roping or dancing head-on, like an obsessed Errol Morris, as a way of looking in the mirror and confronting what you’re made of. “The Fits” is transfixed on the body’s dexterity, how it moves and how it feels in the moment. And it would be plenty effective and visceral even without a disturbing, dissonant woodwind on the score that seems to place Toni in a horror film.
Toni trains as a boxer with her older brother, but she really wants to be a dancer, watching the older girls of the Lionesses and their champion dance squad. In one scene Toni drags a workout bag through the halls of her Cincinnati rec-center as a stream of the dancers rush past her in celebration at their victory. Toni’s so focused and intense, but the others hardly notice her.
As she goes through tryouts and works at being a better dancer, several of the older girls on her team experience a mysterious and unexplained bout of seizures and shortness of breath, which the news media dubs “The Fits.” The tween girls all Snapchat their friend writhing and choking on the floor, and as more go through it, the girls begin to treat it as something of a rite-of-passage, with Toni left wondering why she hasn’t gotten The Fits yet.
Even at barely over an hour, “The Fits’s” persistently on-edge style grows tiresome as it tries to amplify the intensity through little else than its in your face framing and score. What is “The Fits” about other than being a coming-of-age story? We hear Toni say, “I just want to compete,” and she absorbs abuse by peeling tattoos and nail polish off her skin or not screaming when she pierces her own ears, but the specifics of her pain or her ambitions are frustratingly vague.
“The Fits” even has a stylish music video montage that suddenly breaks with the film’s style and matches the fantasy and color in the Rihanna dance sequence in “Girlhood,” another indie film about a black girl coming of age. But it’s at that moment “The Fits” ends, a stylistic high note but a strange story beat that resolves little.
“The Fits” isn’t moving and powerful so much as its style makes it weirdly unsettling. It’s like working out: there’s a big difference between just feeling good and actually seeing results.