A blend of dance, sports, sci-fi, and horror channeled through the story of a nine-year-old tomboy, The Fits is an entirely new take on the coming-of-age film. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is training as a boxer with her brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), but when the dancing team in an adjacent gym attracts her eye, she becomes drawn to a feminine zone of expression. At first unnatural in this new setting, Toni is intimidated by everyone else around her, who all seem so sure of themselves and their bodies. As she begins to transition and find her footing, one by one the girls on the dance team mysteriously start having spontaneous, convulsive “fits.” Nevertheless, Toni continues to plunge further into a new world of dance and self-discovery.
Cast with non-professional actors from an actual Cincinnati dance team, the Q-Kidz, The Fits is the debut feature by producer-filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer, who co-wrote the film with her editor, Saela Davis, and producer, Lisa Kjerulff. Together they make up Yes, Ma’am!, a collective that Holmer claims was at first made jokingly: “We needed a production company and there were all these collectives of dudes that had come out of NYU. There were like three guys who formed companies and produce and direct with each other. We were joking it was almost like a female version of those, so I was like let’s just call it ‘Yes, Ma’am!’ A true collaboration grew out of us being a little sassy.”
Anna Rose Holmer lives in Clinton Hill; we spoke at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Fits premiered—with Oscilloscope Laboratories having already snapped up distribution. Saela Davis (currently of Greenpoint) and Lisa Kjerulff (Crown Heights) chimed in to the conversation via email. The film will make its NYC debut in March at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “New Directors/New Films,” with a theatrical release following in summer.
Brooklyn Magazine: This is a very unusual approach to a coming-of-age film that blends dance and sports with sci-fi and horror.
Anna Rose Holmer: It’s not a genre film, it doesn’t fall into any of the formats but it dips into them. It’s a psychological portrait film about a young girl finding her identity for the first time, and what it means to define yourself in the context of a group. I had worked in dance film as a producer and we borrowed from there. We did look at horror and coming-of-age dramas like Let the Right One In, which is both. But it grew out of dance and wanting to make a film about girlhood.
The film actually starts with boxing.
Holmer: Boxing is so cinematic and graceful, and there’s patience and beauty in the sport. I wanted a sport and a type of dance that felt close together. We wanted it to be a natural transition for Toni, and the first time we see dancing it’s two people sparring.
The spaces in the film are very clearly defined: the boxing gym, the dancing gym, the empty pool, the overpass she trains on which becomes a meeting point of both those worlds.
Lisa Kjerulff: We shot 95 percent of the film in the community center where the Q-Kidz dance team practice every week. This was a wonderful collaboration because we were able to set up a home base that made sense logistically for production but was also a safe and comfortable space for all of our talented cast to perform. With the entire film taking place from Toni’s perspective, the interior spaces of the community center became characters and we used them to define her place within the context of the group. The empty pool and the overpass that she trains on were still enclosed spaces for Toni’s character to exist in outside of the context of the group, which created a really nice balance in her journey.
It’s really important that it’s only a plate of glass separating Toni from the dancing gym, so she can peer from one world to the other.
Holmer: We did a lot with color and lighting to distinguish the boxers’ world from the girls’ world. We wanted one single space with a clear distinction between masculine and feminine where Toni is the only one who can permeate both.
When most people think of dance film they’re thinking of the content, but here the film itself is dancing.
Holmer: It’s a dance film from beginning to end, sometimes that means a literal dance, but everything is choreographed. The way Toni moves, how she breathes. We brought on three choreographers: Mariah and Chariah Jones who did the drill choreography and worked a lot on building the narrative into the dance; and a modern dancer, Celia Rowlson-Hall, to do the rest, including the fits themselves. Each girl worked with her one-on-one to protect the sanctity of those moments so they’re unique for each character. Celia really helped Royalty with her physicality, the way she holds her shoulders. The physical continuity is needed to match the emotional continuity.
The sound and the music are as prominent as the visuals if not more so.
Saela Davis: Anna knew from the beginning that she wanted sound to be like another character in the film. We knew Toni would be expressing herself a lot externally through movement and sound would be a way into her mind. We started our conversations with our sound designer, Chris Foster, early on to discuss ideas about how Toni internal world would sound. We knew these sounds would shift throughout the film to tell the story of how Toni is changing. It was important to us that her “body sounds” were unique and would help the audience understand how she is feeling. During the edit, I would pull a lot of sound effects from the sound libraries which
I knew weren’t quite right. I’d pass these sound ideas off to Chris and he would craft his own version of each “body sound.”
Holmer: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans came on to do the score because they worked on Lisa’s previous film. I sent some crazy saxophone music to them as my first reference and they understood right away. We used breath as a motif, you can hear it going on the reed and through the clarinet, treating the instrument like a body.
And the fits themselves?
Holmer: They’re based on real episodes of hysterics in modern day and medieval times. They’re allegorical but also grounded and physical.