In my conversations with Justin on the Film Misery podcast, I’ve been decrying the use of the pejorative term Oscar Bait, used to describe films that seek to entertain a large audience with affable, undemanding artfulness and at least passably enlightening themes. The Fits may be the first exemplar of an emerging class of Festival Bait™: a movie that uses tropes and techniques common among many films on the festival circuit, but without any understanding of why artists employ these modes and styles.
This tolerable freshman feature by Anna Rose Holmer is seemingly quite straightforward. Adolescent Toni (played by Royalty Hightower, whose name could easily be used on some Trump property) spends her free time at a Cincinnati rec centre boxing with the boys. Through a window one day, she spots an all-girl dance troupe and becomes transfixed; she joins and struggles to compete with their energy and precision. As she grows as a dancer, some of the other girls begin to have strange fits (!), ranging from spastic paroxysms to disturbing paralysis. What is causing this? Could it be something in the water? Could it be symbolic of [insert social issue]?
As I said, there is much in The Fits to make it festival-friendly: self-consiously long takes, non actors playing unvarnished versions of themselves, and delphic storytelling. However, in the best ‘art cinema,’ the ambiguity has a point; here, it seems like a crux Holmer leans on because she doesn’t have anything to say. At 72 minutes, the narrative is maddeningly protracted, yet no thematic concept is explored in enough detail to make an impression. Holmer has made a deliberately mystifying and impenetrable film.
Now, I completely understand the impulse to reward a filmmaker like this for a film like this. But I would be remiss not to point out that its opaqueness is just a mask for its vapidity. I’m a fan of ambiguous, cryptic cinema, of course, and Holmer has obviously studied films like van Sant’s Elephant and Glazer’s Under the Skin. All she seems to be demonstrating here, however, is that it is possible for a film to be so elliptical that it winds up saying nothing at all. A movie rife with symbolism, which deals with the human experience obliquely, is naturally open to different interpretations. A movie devoid of meaning is, ironically, open to infinite interpretations, because there is just as much evidence for one reading as there is for any other. (None.)
The Fits is, unfortunately, the latter sort of movie. It’s not realistic enough to examine the specifics of its characters or its setting, and not artful enough to achieve a universality of theme. It’s like Holmer wanted to make a Half-Nelson or Ballast and began her screenplay accordingly, but pivoted to making a Post Tenebras Lux during filming. Her cinematic technique does nothing to further an understanding of her characters, ideas, or message—if she even has them; it’s entirely an affectation. The climactic dance sequence of The Fits therefore proves an unfortunately laughable affair, a confrontational parody of the worst of arthouse cinema.
The film is not without its virtues. There are two perfect shots that make you lament the film that could have been, and eagerly await what Holmer could accomplish in the future with a steady (and strict) producer. In the first shot, lasting perhaps two minutes, Toni practices with the troupe. The girls around her land their moves accurately, precisely, while Toni flails about, not getting it. Holding the shot for so long makes you feel Toni’s desperation: she’s treading as fast as she can to keep her head above water. The second shot follows Toni as she is jogging. She makes it to the top of a flight of stairs and begins jumping jacks. This workout quickly morphs into the dance routine she’s been learning, which she executes with as much grace and precision as the other girls in the first shot. Holmer comes so close to making a good film, it made me ache.
The Fits is exactly the sort of movie that critics love. They write glowing reviews of such a film in the hopes that they can help it find an audience. Then audiences see it, and write scathing sentence fragments in Disqus comment sections damning critics, insisting the profession increasingly irrelevant. I normally regard such comments with disdain; in this case, though, audiences might just have a point.