The Fits is a beautiful and true film that analogizes the emotional heft of girls growing up with a real-life physical tug of war between the act of boxing and competitive drill dance. It is the best film I’ve seen all year, and perhaps one of the best I’ve ever seen. Technically a coming of age film as well as a dance movie, The Fits both transcends and uplifts those characteristics, conceived as a story about the way young girls navigate both fitting in and becoming truly themselves. It’s filmed in a way that feels both heavy and elated, mimicking the complex and often confusing ways we feel when we’re first learning about the world.
Set in West Cincinnati, The Fits follows the story of sweet Toni, an 11-year-old girl who spends nights learning to box in her older brother’s gym, where she becomes intrigued by a group of girls practicing for a drill competition next door. After she joins their squad (heartbreakingly awkward at first but determined to do well) the girls begin having mysterious “fits”—seizure-like episodes that seem to affect each member of the squad one by one. What’s causing them is the central concern of the film, but running parallel to it is the way shy Toni begins to unfurl after making new girlfriends, especially a spritely, hyperactive dancer named Beezy (Alexis Neblett), who shows Toni that it’s OK to let loose.
The Fits is ever the more real because the film’s cast is portrayed by Cincinnati’s real-life drill squad the Q-Kidz, and Toni is played by group member Royalty Hightower, a resplendent powerhouse with the most expressive face and a true star from the first second of the film. Director Anna Rose Holmer and co-writers Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff had written an outline of the screenplay, but weren’t entirely sure what style of dance would take shape within it until Holmer found the Q-Kidz on YouTube. What followed was a unique collaborative process between cast and filmmakers to create a special, unpredictable movie shot from the perspective of Toni. Hightower had veto power over her lines, and the camera is often aligned directly with her sightline, offering funny shots of her brother’s belly.
Last week, I spoke with Holmer about the tangled and hopeful issues at play in The Fits, and about being a woman making a film about girls growing up (in which boys play only the tiniest familial role).
JEZEBEL: What initially made you want to make a film about the idea of girlhood, and what was the impetus in focusing specifically on that general age frame?
ANNA ROSE HOLMER: We started to talk about the film as a coming of age film—and even now, I’m so hesitant to use that phrase because it comes with a lot of baggage, particularly for stories about girls and young women. I think often it’s placed like five years later when you’re talking about sexual awakening, the idea that the first time a girl is struggling with her identity or surrounding, that it’s purely sexual desire.
And that’s not true. There should be tons of movies about girls wandering around in the woods with sticks, you know, kind of figuring out who they are. There’s this gap, it’s like girls are little girls, where they’re mostly like objects in film. And then they’re, you know, teenagers with this kind of sexual desire, and there is not a lot in between.
It’s tough, and one of the things that we really wanted to just do was portray an 11-year-old girl as a complex human being who has doubts and fears and obsessions and uncertainties and desires and she’s strong and she’s driving the entire action of our film. It’s about Toni, and putting an audience in that journey with her.
That’s funny; until just now I didn’t really think about the fact that there was no, like, crush on a boy. Her interactions with boys are all mostly with her older brother and his friends, with whom she doesn’t really interact with much. I guess I didn’t notice, and I didn’t miss it, because I could relate to her. I can’t think of many other movies that portray girls like that off the top of my head.
There’s a really great film called We are the Best—Vi är Bäst!—and it’s about three girls around maybe 12 or 13 forming a punk band in Stockholm in 1989 and it’s the best film. It’s so fun. It’s based on a graphic novel; there’s three girls in the friendship between them and it’s just really beautiful to watch. There is a crush, but it’s really about them as girls. The theme song is called “Hate the Sport!” It’s great.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the uncertainty of the beginning; when I first saw The Fits, for the first 20 minutes or however long, it felt like there might not be any dialogue at all—I was like, oh my God, no one’s going to talk in this film? It starts out very quietly and then sort of spreads its wings. What led you to make that choice?
You know, we really see The Fits as a dance film, from frame one to the closing credits. So many of our choices were about movement as communication, and how we use our bodies as markers in different ways to consciously and subconscious tell the world about ourselves. So I think it just kind of came from Lisa, Celia’s and my style as filmmakers. It’s very visually driven. We were thinking about it in the dance context.
And Toni was always kind of this loner. She chats with her brother, but in the beginning of the film she doesn’t really have anybody to talk to. Beezy is really the first person who she’s having long conversations with. So to kind of falsely create situations where she had to communicate when she was already communicating so much with her body—it just felt more true to Toni to explore it through physicality and movement. And yeah, I think the first word that Toni says is about seven or eight minutes into the film. And it’s “I don’t know.” [laughs]
It was funny because in the script we had a little bit more dialogue for Toni—and Royalty, as an actress, crossed out quite a bit of her dialogue. Like, “I’m already saying this, this is redundant,” kind of thing.
Why did you set out to do a dance movie, and what’s the connection between that sort of physicality of movement and actually being a young girl and having these experiences?
Early on when we started to think about the film, I wanted to talk about adolescence as a very strange dance that we all have to learn the choreography to. So much of your identity in that growing phase is looking towards others to define yourself, and the idea of body mirroring in many ways. I think that’s a perfect place to put choreography because that’s literally what learning a dance is— it’s about body mirroring and following the steps, so it felt really natural to think of coming of age as a dance. But I think that for me, the tension between my body and other kind of particularly female bodies and what kind of the “ideal form” of being a woman is when you’re talking about body identity doesn’t get solved after you’re done with that phase. It’s still tough, and I think you still look around and compare and contrast and there’s positive and negative sides to that.
And then the main focus is just putting these very controlled, intentional precise dance movements against these very subconscious, uncontrolled, spontaneous movements of the fits, and discovering that the line between those things is very thin. Going back and forth between those two kind of types of movements is where Toni starts to learn who she is, both when she’s performing as herself and who she is when she lets down her guard and just exposes herself to the group.
That idea of performing as yourself is so wrought, especially for young girls.
Letting yourself be seen is so hard—being in these moments of extreme vulnerability. That’s the core for me about being human and building relationships—allowing people to see you in those moments, and that’s so scary.
Did you watch other dance movies to get into it?
Yeah, but what I maybe call a dance movie is different than [the mainstream definition of the genre]... even really early experimental female filmmakers like Maya Deren or Shirley Clark who were dancers, choreographers and also simultaneously experimenting in dance film. Or, more recently, artists like Kahlil Joseph and what he’s doing in the music video space. Especially the Flying Lotus video that he directed.
I think that there are so many ways of talking about the dance film, but I think the most formative film for me in terms of when I talk about movement and movement-based storytelling is Hunger by Steve McQueen. The first phrase of that film is completely about bodies and juxtaposing bodies with precise framing and telling the story through movement and confinement.
What Toni learns in the terms of what dance films is that Beezy teaches her the joy of play, and how play intersects with dance. The Toni that you see at the beginning of the film is so controlled and precise and rigid, and she needs to learn play in order to become a dancer and learn about letting go and giving up control to access something else. And I think that great dancers are following choreography, but it’s so deep in muscle memory that they can be very present in a performance. It’s not about overthinking the steps and focusing on precision, it’s about channeling this other thing. That’s what Toni learns as a dancer. She learns about letting go.
You have said that you didn’t initially write this film specific to any particular style of dance.
It started in cheer, but that quickly became not realistic. So when we outlined the film originally as a full film, there wasn’t a dance form in mind.
And then you found the Q-Kidz online?
Yeah, on YouTube. It was like three months of watching cellphone videos of many different types of dance. And better quality than cell phone, but I was also looking for a lot of user generated content. I was also watching videos of like, 12-year-old girls doing like, 35 pull-ups. I was just trying to collect all these little textures that became part of the choreographic fabric.
But when I found drill, it was actually a stand battle. I knew about majorette dancing, the more field show element, but I had never seen a stand battle in that context. And immediately I saw the kind of call and response element, because it’s it’s based on an eight count. The two teens face each other and the captains make a call on to what routine they’re going to do. But it’s a combination of knowing these many routines and then kind of improv at the moment with the captain picking what stand they’re going to battle back with. And I really love boxing, so I felt like I was always looking for kind of a counter to that. Logistically speaking, the Q-Kidz were the only team I formally asked to be part of this, and they came on before we had a full draft of the script, so we started to collaborate with their location in mind. Once we cast, the script had kind of a big overhaul because we brought the kids in as authors alongside us.
Could you explain that collaborative process a little bit more?
We always put dialogue in the script as a placeholder for wanting one just about authenticity, and speaking like a teenager. We wanted to hand over the authorship in that sense; but also our philosophy as filmmakers is about collaboration and inviting everybody to see themselves as authors alongside of us and that ideas they voice are valid and welcome.
And so I was on location for nine weeks total, maybe three of which were shooting, so there was a lot of time beforehand where we were just workshopping, talking about choreography, talking about character and trying to make it an open process.
We had a very specific script in terms of movement and this journey and the fits. I mean, we came with a full screenplay, but we workshopped it and we never said the screenplay—like, we are not an authority on anyone else’s experience but ours. This is our vision, what’s yours? Where’s the meeting point, where’s the Venn diagram? That continued throughout the entire process with all the collaborators. That’s what I think filmmaking should be. I think it’s strongest when those voices are at the table together.
Is that an uncommon method of filmmaking? I’ve not really heard of many people actively taking that philosophical approach.
I don’t know. I definitely struggle to find role models in the directing space. I’ve found a lot of creative leadership that I admired in producers who see filmmaking really from the lens of team-building. I think that there’s this kind of false idea that a director needs to be this top-down, authoritarian voice on set in order for anything to get done. And really it’s that you are accepting responsibility for the world that you’re creating.
I’m glad that The Fits was so collaborative and so real to the actors’s specific experiences. It makes it a better movie.
Ava DuVernay has injected the word “inclusion,” into the conversation [around filmmaking], and inclusivity is what we’re trying to champion. I love that word, and making an inclusive collaborative process is important to me. But you know it’s not just about filmmaking—as a human being, I benefit from shared perspectives.
You’re also still very involved with the Q-Kidz and within the community you worked with in Cincinnati, correct?
I think particularly in this film, the responsibility just doesn’t end just because the movie’s done. And it’s not even a responsibility—I feel like I have a family in Cincinnati, I really do. I call Ms. Quicy [Q-Kidz founder Marquicia Jones-Woods] for advice, and I talk with Royalty and I talk with her mom Sharice. We’re just part of each other’s lives. We went through this huge thing together as her first film. That’s a relationship and a community that I hope to be part of for my life. I have learned so much from them and the kind of deep respect they have for each other and sense of sisterhood— it’s inspiring. I can’t wait to see where all these girls go and be there to champion them and cheer from the sidelines.
The Fits opens Friday, June 3. In New York, Holmer and Hightower will be in person at Metrograph on this Friday’s 7 p.m. screening, and Holmer at Saturday’s 7 p.m. screening.