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New movie The Fits perfectly captures childhood loneliness, with a side of haunting mystery

A dance troupe guards an incredible secret in a brief, beautiful film.

The Fits
Newcomer Royalty Hightower stars in The Fits.
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I'm not sure I can explain the plot of The Fits to you, but I can tell you how it feels.



It feels like being all alone in the school gym long after classes have ended for the day. It feels like going to the mall and seeing that all your friends are already there but didn't think to invite you. It feels like seeing someone who's just a year older than you but is rocketing toward adulthood, while you're still just a kid.

What I'm trying to say is that The Fits doesn't want to tell a story so much as it wants to provide an experience, to force you back into the space of being 13 or 14 years old and feeling lonely and out of step with even your very best friends. And in terms of capturing that adolescent ennui, it's as good as any movie I've seen.

A girl who wants to be a dancer and a strange ailment that haunts her troupe

The Fits
The girls of a dance troupe are bedeviled by a strange malady in The Fits.
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Okay, yes, The Fits has a plot, of a sort.

Set in a predominantly black neighborhood, the film follows Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), a girl right on the cusp of adolescence who works out with boxers at a gym. (It was shot in Cincinnati, but it's not especially explicit about location.) A dance troupe also works out at said gym, and Toni becomes fascinated by the troupe and eventually tries to join.

She's not as good as the troupe's leaders, but neither are most of the other girls her age, something the film highlights in a wide shot in which the older girls — dancing with precision — can just barely be seen amid a sea of younger girls dancing all over the place. (The members' age range clearly spans a few years, including both tweens and teens.)

As Toni tries to work her way in, we might think we know what sort of movie we're watching: an underdog story about an unlikely dancer, perhaps one that highlights how Toni can be into boxing and dancing, and how none of us is just one thing.

Except then the older dancers start to suffer a mysterious ailment, one that sends them falling to the floor in gasps and shivers, one that's rumored to be caused by some sort of pathogen in the water. (These are the "fits" of the title.) And instead of giving Toni a sense of belonging, the troupe, through no fault of its own, starts to feel just a little bit sinister.

This isn't the movie you think it is. It's better.

The Fits
The Fits is beautifully shot.
Oscilloscope Laboratories

If that description makes The Fits sound like a mystery where Toni will have to uncover the truth about what's happening to her fellow dancers, well, I can see where you might expect as much. But the exact cause and meaning of the fits are almost completely incidental. The film makes no real attempt to explain its title malady or what's causing it; its primary importance is as metaphor.

The fits stand in, variously, for puberty, or for sexuality, or for mortality. They're the fact that adolescence marks an enormously exciting time in a person's life, but also an enormously isolating and horrifying one. If you wanted to, you could even strain to read them as a commentary on the Flint water crisis. (Though considering the film was made well before Flint entered the headlines, you'd really have to strain.)

I realize that saying The Fits never bothers to clearly explain the mystery behind the fits is going to give many people the impression that I'm panning the film. But I think the weakest thing The Fits could do would be to force some sort of answer into the proceedings. A lot of adolescence is a weird mystery that you have to live through, and even after you reach adulthood it remains difficult to understand. The Fits just places all of that in an external context.

Even when this movie is telling a more conventional story about Toni's outsider fascination with the dance troupe, it's not doing so in a conventional way. Director Anna Rose Holmer situates much of the film in wide shot, the better to underscore how isolated Toni feels from the rest of the world. When she's the only figure onscreen in a giant void of space, this approach only serves to highlight her loneliness. Older boys are shot like strange alien beings, older girls like royalty.

The story is not told, so much as suggested, in stray bits of dialogue and half-expressed plot points. Holmer leans on what we know of coming-of-age tales to help sell the ways Toni both intersects and doesn't intersect with those familiar narratives, and by setting her story in a black community in Cincinnati, Holmer gains a specificity of place (the film's locations feel worn down and lived-in) and underscores the alienating universality of being 13 or 14 years old and feeling like you'll never belong anywhere.

You might quibble that The Fits is too much of a suggestion, and at just 72 minutes long (68 without the closing credits), I might be inclined to agree. There are times when the movie becomes too elusive and elliptical.

Yet its concluding 10 minutes — which largely abandon straightforward storytelling for a series of evocative images that play like the closing moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey if they took place in inner-city Cincinnati and starred a teenage girl — are so stunning and unusual that I don't think it matters. The Fits isn't a great film, but it's made by and stars great talents. And often, that's enough.

The Fits is playing in selected theaters around the country. See if it's playing in your neighborhood here.