Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 02, 2016 2:54 pm 
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Black girls at a rec center in Cincinnati; a girl torn between two worlds

In this engaging but frustrating debut feature -- another one in 2016 New Directors (like the Brazilian Kill Me Please) that's more like an extended short than a feature -- tomboyish 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) moves from boxer training, which she shares with her older brother, to a dance-marching band group across the way that is all girls. And some of these girls start having epileptic-like fits, which are initially attributed to the water -- a timely reference in view of the recent scandal about the water supply of Flint, Michigan.

Holmer blends scenes back and forth between Toni and her brother at the boxing gym, the dance workouts, a couple older boys and girlfriends, the fits, an empty swimming pool, and walks home with Toni and her brother. There is a lot of well-filmed physical activity, especially exercises like pull-ups and sit-ups, repetitious dance routines (standing in place, body and arm movement, not leg), and byplay between Toni and her brother. The best things are the warm and playful interactions between Toni and her brother. They play so naturally together. Royalty Hightower is a poised, versatile charmer.

Though she's presented as a tomboy, Toni's ear-piercing and nail-painting moments show she's not un-feminine; but she is simply a little detached from the others at times.

In a Variety review from Sundance Nick Schrager describes this film as "An abstract portrait of adolescent emotional dynamics," and says Holmer "crafts a meticulous mood of psychological isolation and beguiling mystery through her metaphorical tale, which exhibits less interest in traditional dramatic conventions than in situating viewers in its protagonist’s particular headspace." This is accurate in the way it suggests The Fits is more like an art piece, or at moments a music video, than a conventional feature film, but it's not so clear how Toni's "headspace" is being simulated, since that's all wordless and inarticulate. Suppose she had had a voiceover or a diary? Clearly Toni and her brother live in the projects. But the camera never follows them all the way home. And though Holmer conveys a vivid sense of the youth community at the rec center, the other characters are visited only fleetingly. There is a lot of staccato, natural dialogue. But it doesn't gain much narrative purchase.

Schrader explains that the film was developed through a "micro-budget program at the Venice Biennale institute that stipulates all projects be completed in under a year." It does indeed show promise, for its vividness and energy. But Holmer needs to work more on story and delve deeper into her characters.

The Fits, 72 mins., debuted at Venice, and showed also at Sundance and New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review. Picked up for US distribution by Oscilloscope. Limited US theatrical release beginning 3 June 2016. (Extravagantly well received as of that date, Metacritic 88%.) At Metrograph, NYC, Laemmle Monica Film Center, L.A., Landmark Opera Plaza, San Francisco.

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