Female Adolescence Becomes the stuff of Nightmares in Surreal film “The Fits”

Arts
There has never been a greater schism between what we watch on large screens in crowded multiplexes and what we watch in the privacy and comfort of our own homes than there is today. The highest grossing films of 2016, as they have been for the last decade, were sequels, big budget superhero tentpoles and animated family films. However, box office reports don’t show the full picture of what American film audiences are consuming today.

 

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Thanks to streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon more people are watching independent films and documentaries than ever before. These streaming sites are buying films at festivals and while independent filmmakers (for the most part) aren’t receiving big paydays, their films are getting a level of exposure on these sites that most low budget films have never received. Now, for the first time, people who don’t have art-house cinemas in their towns or have never been to a film festival have unprecedented access to films made outside of the studio system—many of which feature diverse characters and stories that challenge and explore nuanced ideas of mental, physical, and spiritual health. One such film is The Fits, an independent film directed by Anna Rose Helmer that was recently made available to stream on Amazon Prime.

 

The Fits, which premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, was shown at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is currently nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, is a thought provoking and surreal meditation on shared trauma. The film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an eleven-year-old African American tomboy who decides to leave the comfort of her brother’s boxing gym behind to join the local dance group known as the Lionesses.

 

One by one the older girls on the team start to have “fits” where their bodies convulse and flail in such a way that it evokes both modern dance and seizures.

 

To Toni, a young girl on the brink of womanhood, this squad of fierce teens in matching unitards, is the embodiment of femininity and their hip-hop infused dances represent an ancient language she longs to speak. However, after she joins the team a mysterious affliction begins to pass through the ranks of the dance group.  One by one the older girls on the team start to have “fits” where their bodies convulse and flail in such a way that it evokes both modern dance and seizures. The community becomes concerned but no one can quite figure out what causes this bizarre ailment. Momentarily they believe it is the water that is causing these girls to have these out-of-body experiences—that the community itself is poisoning the young—but tests on the water are inconclusive.
What are these “fits” supposed to be? Is it a real, physical illness or is it just psychosomatic? Are they stand-ins for real life recent endemics like the one in Flint, Michigan or does the fact that the “fits” only seem to happen to the more mature women in the group signify that they are an allegory for the pains of becoming a woman in this society? Are “the fits” sinister in nature or are they a necessary bridge to adulthood?  In Helmer’s debut feature she shrewdly gives us just enough information to ask the right questions but not enough to pin anything down definitively.
Helmer, with her cinematographer Paul Yee, instead creates a surreal mood that is at once hypnotic and extremely eerie. The majority of the scenes take place in large, spacious gymnasiums whose bright white walls conjure up images of both purgatory and government quarantines. By employing a laconic pacing and wide shots that emphasize the vastness of the empty space around the dancers Helmer creates foreboding atmosphere that begs its audience to wonder who “the fits” will affect next.

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Helmer has stated in interviews that her interest in the story began after researching mass epidemics and hysteric outbreaks. With a budget of just $200,000 she and her team have masterfully created a nuanced tonal poem that examines the emotions and effects of shared trauma through the lens of adolescent anxieties. As Toni becomes more and more entrenched within the hierarchy of the dance group, she becomes more susceptible to “the fits” and her desire to belong increases. She hears the older girls talk about their experiences with the convulsions (some of them actually liked how it felt) as if comparing date stories and Toni is left to wonder if and when she’ll experience her “fits”. Though she never says so explicitly we know that a part of her is drawn to this strange rite of passage just as much as she is intimidated by it. Either way, she is powerless to stop it.

 

The film’s air of mystery, like the synchronized dances that populate the film, is as hypnotic as it is anxiety inducing

 

The undertones of female sexuality in this film are tough to miss. At eleven years old, Toni, and the other young members of the dance troupe, are on the brink of going through puberty and experiencing menstruation. Thus the films depiction of this mysterious trauma can be seen as a commentary on our society’s perspective of female sexuality itself. Unlike male puberty, which is celebrated and laughed about as a natural—albeit awkward—phase of life in film and television, female menstruation and sexuality are often shown as corruption of innocence and discussed in the same hushed tones usually reserved for diseases and other ominous threats. By framing a female coming of age story as a Polanski-inspired horror film Helmer ingeniously contrasts the ways in which male and female puberty our often depicted in our culture.
The Fits is a truly original and self-assured piece of work that ruminates on many complex themes while still being smart enough to know that nothing about them is clear-cut. The film’s air of mystery, like the synchronized dances that populate the film, is as hypnotic as it is anxiety inducing and the constant juxtaposition of these seemingly opposite emotions makes a profound statement about the emotionally confusing state of adolescence and disease.
 The Fits runs a brisk hour and eleven minutes and is available to stream on Amazon Prime and rent on iTunes.

 


 

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Michael Feinstein is a writer and filmmaker from Providence, Rhode Island. Since graduating from New York University, where he received degrees in both screenwriting and history, he has directed three short films, co-created a webseries for MTV, and wrote a play about former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, which premiered at Chicago’s Athenaeum theater. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he spends most of his time watching reruns of Fraiser with his dog Archibald. His first feature film as a writer/director is currently in post-production and is entitled The Browsing Effect.

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