Rhythm is gonna get you

Filmmaker’s unique debut moves with the dance of life

Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett and Da’Sean Minor. Directed by Anna Rose Holmer. Pageant Theatre. Not rated.
Rated 4.0

The Fits is something really special. That’s partly because, at first glance, it may not seem special at all, and partly because, even at second glance, it may seem earnest but obvious and mostly undramatic.

The key thing to know (or better yet, discover) about Anna Rose Holmer’s feature-film debut is that it is fundamentally a dance film. It has a story to tell and an interesting central character to follow, and it has striking moments of mystery and drama. But dance forms, which here include choreographed body language and the rhythms of everyday movement, are at the core of its dramatic energy and formal beauty.

The central character is a rather solitary preteen named Toni (Royalty Hightower), who we first see taking boxing lessons from her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) in a community center gym. She’s holding her own in that otherwise all-male setting, but she’s also taking an increasing interest in the activities of the all-girl dance teams in another part of that gym.

As Toni gradually begins to join the free-form community that the dance team represents, something mysterious and troubling begins to happen within the group. Intermittently but repeatedly, individual dancers are hit by fainting spells, seizures, “fits” (hence the title). The film offers no explanation of these “fits” (though Holmer indicates in the press notes that there is a continuing historical record of such phenomena). Some of the dancers, including Toni, are troubled by these occurrences, but others see them with a certain sense of wonder.

One of the pivotal moments in the film arrives during an early and particularly dramatic “fit” scene. The fit itself is strange, but there’s also the mild shock of realizing that the only response of the witnesses to this moment is to record it on their cellphones. What makes the moment pivotal is the eventual recognition that, for this film, those cellphone recordings are not a sign of heartless indifference, but rather a further extension of the film’s embrace of all forms of human movement, the mysterious and the mundane alike, as elements of dance.

The free-wheeling musical nature of the film is evident from the start. The only thing we hear during the opening credits is a voice counting in a rhythmic whisper. When the count reaches 10, we get our first view of Toni, who is crunching through some sit-ups in the boxing gym. The film has a remarkable musical score, but there is also a sense in which everything on its soundtrack, including the counting of sit-ups, is part of its music.