The first sign that something strange may lurk at the root of The Fits’s naturalistic acting and precise compositions is Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s score, what with its droning synthesizers and atonal woodwind lines. Redolent of the way Gary Yershon’s similar, and similarly disconcerting, compositions for Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner suggested the depths of J.M.W. Turner’s psychological torments, Bensi and Jurriaans use chromatic musical lines to express the confusions and unspoken desires for acceptance that grip Toni (Royalty Hightower), the film’s pre-pubescent protagonist. By the time a mysterious rash of epileptic seizures and fainting spells—the “fits” of the film’s title—starts to afflict members of a dance troupe, this paranormal turn of events already feels as if it’s been intuitively forecasted.
Such acute attention to purely cinematic detail distinguishes Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature. Toni is a quiet, tomboyish 11-year-old who spends her days cleaning up and training at a boxing gym, but also pines to join the ranks of the dance troupe known as the Lionesses. She isn’t much different from others her age trying to handle the emotional turbulence of adolescence, but Holmer’s impressionistic style makes Toni’s difficulties feel unique. With as little as a shot from Toni’s point of view as she spies on the Lionesses practicing from outside a door window, its edges suggesting a barrier yet to be pierced, Holmer poignantly conveys the character’s longing for inclusion. Similarly evocative is a wide shot of Toni practicing dance moves by herself in a studio, with the negative space surrounding her implying the kind of loneliness that she tries to fight against with her flailing limbs.
Also impressive is the economy of dramaturgical means by which the interiority of the characters is conveyed. The audience learns about the outbreak of the fits not through foreshadowing hints, but as Toni herself does: by first hearing about the malady from other team members until she finally witnesses with her own eyes a team member’s affliction. Nor does Holmer feel the need to whip up a scene simply to establish the beginnings of the friendship that develops between Toni and fellow team member Beezy (Alexis Neblett); their camaraderie appears as if it simply exists, materializing on screen almost unexpectedly. The connections between people and events are felt more than prosaically spelled out; Holmer even suggests that Toni’s entrance into the Lionesses is somehow a trigger for the fits.
This singular mix of character study and mysterious mood piece might not have come off quite so successfully if not for Hightower’s internal performance. The full extent of Toni’s confusion and self-doubt reveals itself largely through the actress’s body language: the initial clumsiness of her physical movements as Toni tries to master the Lionesses’ choreography, the sense of careful observation that teems in her large eyes. All of this builds up to a surreal finale that—in its haunting slow-motion images of Toni, feet floating slightly above the ground, dancing as if she herself has finally become possessed—doubles as both a fascinatingly ambiguous conclusion to the central mystery and a poetic expression of the depths of Toni’s desire to belong. And it’s a yearning for which she’s willing to risk life and limb.