"The Fits" pulls you in and won't let go. Made by a first-time feature director working with a microscopic budget and a tiny, 11-year-old protagonist, it's a 72-minute wonder, a self-assured, gently mysterious little film that is hypnotic in unexpected ways.
Directed by Anna Rose Holmer (who also co-wrote with editor Saela Davis and producer Lisa Kjerulff), "The Fits" could be described as a coming-of-age story. But pigeonholing it that way does an injustice to a singular venture that uses movement and imagery more than plot or dialogue to immerse audiences in the emotional mood and mindset of a young girl who arrives all unawares at a turning point in her life.
That would be Toni (Royalty Hightower, 9-playing-11 when shooting began), introduced in a tight close-up counting her way through a series of sit-ups. Her deliberate expression and self-possessed attitude involves us immediately, which is a good thing because from beginning to end "The Fits" is all about this person's presence.
Toni is doing her exercises in a boxing gym set up in a community center in an unnamed city (it's Cincinnati) where her older brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) trains and works as a custodian.
For the record, 6:40 p.m. June 9: An earlier version of this post referred to Toni's older brother Donte and said he was played by Antonio AB Grant. The character's name is Jermaine and is played by Da'Sean Minor.
Devoted to him in a very sweet way, Toni helps out by sweeping up, folding towels and rolling multi-gallon water dispensers across the floor. She even gets in the ring with Donte to practice her punching rhythms, which turn out to be pretty good.
On another floor of the community center, something very different is going on. The Lionesses Dance Team, a highly choreographed group of young women who've mastered very elaborate routines, practices daily and, tomboy though she is, Toni is fascinated.
Wandering away from the gym, Toni peeks through the glass at this tight group of noticeably older girls, involved, in addition to dance, in an alien world of lip gloss and boys.
Almost against her will, and for reasons she can in no way articulate, Toni is drawn to this universe, and with the encouragement of Donte — who tells her "the only way you lose a fight is if you don't get in the ring" — she signs up for the team and even makes friends with another young newcomer, the effervescent Beezy (Alexis Neblett).
And then it happens. First one, then the other of the team's co-captains, Legs (Makyla Burnam) and Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), are struck by strange fainting spells that come to be known as "the fits," an epidemic that no one can explain.
Faced with this rapidly changing situation, the still uncertain and anxious Toni has to figure out, as we all do, how to find her place in the larger world, how to gracefully become who she is meant to be.
Director Holmer has said she the initial impetus for "The Fits" was an interest in the phenomena of mass hysteria among teenage girls. She came across a video of Cincinnati's Q-Kidz Dance Team on Youtube, talked to the group's founder Marquicia Jones-Woods, and ended up casting all 40-plus girls from the team in the film, including star Hightower, from the team.
Because the budget for "The Fits" was so limited (roughly $163,000 from the Venice Biennale Cinema College), director Holmer was fortunate to have gifted collaborators, and not just editor Davis, producer Kjerulff and star Hightower.
Herself a former cinematography student, Holmer knew what she was looking for in director of photography Paul Yee, whose framing and imagery work wonders in limited settings. Similarly, the strong contemporary music of Stenfert Charles (featured in the recent "Last Days In the Desert") keeps audiences both off-balance and on-point.
None of this would be as effective as it is, however, without Hightower's performance as Toni. Possessed of a killer grin that seems to come out of nowhere, she embodies yearning in an almost poetic way. "The Fits" is an allusive, artistic film that prefers not to spell everything out, but we all know what it means.
No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes. Playing Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica, Playhouse 7, Pasadena.