Toni (Royalty Hightower) and her brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor). All stills via "The Fits"
Anna Rose Holmer's debut about coming of age in Cincinnati has received rave reviews and comparisons to Barry Jenkins's Oscar winning film. She explains why Hollywood needs to diversify its depiction of childhood.
Director Anna Rose Holmer's captivating first feature film, The Fits, explores gender, conformity, and self-acceptance in the form of a young girl poised between childhood and adolescence. Toni, an aspiring boxer falls in love with dance when she encounters an all-girl competitive dance team—but she begins to question her need to fit in when her new squad members begin to suffer mysterious convulsions.
Holmer's storytelling emphasises movement as a way to communicate both individual and collective experience, and though firmly grounded in reality, the film shares dreamlike qualities with Moonlight, another coming of age tale that it has been compared to. (In February, Holmer actually directed a short dance film inspired by the Oscar-winning movie, starring dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.)
The Fits all came together thanks to YouTube, where Holmer discovered the Q-Kidz, a local dance team set up for kids in the West End neighborhood of Cincinnati. She decided to cast them as the film's ambitious drill team, gave the lead role to a nine-year-old dancer named Royalty Hightower, and shot the film on location at the community centre where the squad practice.
The film premiered at Venice Film Festival to rave reviews and has since played at Sundance and been nominated for numerous awards, with Holmer taking home the Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" Award in 2017. She talks to Broadly about her beguiling drama and how she nailed its strange in-between feeling of adolescence.
BROADLY: What propelled you to explore coming of age through dance?
Anna Rose Holmer: When I started to think about The Fits I was producing a feature documentary at New York City Ballet. Just in having the privilege of being in the room and watching a choreographer work with dancers, I started to think a lot about body mirroring and how we learn new skills. I started to think about adolescence as choreography of sorts. Fish Tank is a huge inspiration and influence for this film. Andrea Arnold's filmmaking in general has always felt so physical to me.
Royalty Hightower, who plays Toni, turns in a magnificent performance. How did you explain the role to her?
Royalty is incredible. She's very different from Toni and is a gifted actor. She was nine and ten when we were filming. We read the script together and we opened it up for discussion. I let her know that anything was on the table for her to modify. The benefit of her being such a talented dancer helped to really bring Toni to life in a physically nuanced way.
Toni suffers some conflict about fitting in with the other girls in the dance team. Is this something you experienced when you were growing up?
I co-wrote the film with two other women, my editor and producer, and we are all Toni in a way. We really connected on this idea that at that age we were self-isolating. We were the ones who were hesitant to go in the room. There was no one saying you're no good or you don't belong. It was us questioning our belonging. That's what we were after—an introverted protagonist who is questioning her voice, value, and vision at that time. Growing up I really admired my older brother, he's still one of my best friends. Trying to capture that sibling presence in a positive way is also something we were trying to do with The Fits.
How did you research the boxing aspect of your film?
Boxing is such a cinematic sport and I learnt through this process that it was the first sport ever captured on film. I think the qualities that make a great dancer translate really well to boxing. We worked with a boxing coach and I spent a lot of time talking to the boxers we cast in the film who are at junior Olympic level, including Da'Sean Minor who plays Toni's brother. I spent a lot of time listening to the voices and watching training sessions. For me it was about finding the parallels between the two disciplines and where they were separate. Boxing is a very individual sport and I wanted to contrast that against this collective team sport of dance where it was about many bodies moving as one.
When working in the community centre in Cincinnati, did the creative energy of the Q-Kidz dance team filter in and inform your vision?
Yes, The Fits was not originally conceived to be set in Cincinnati. That grew out of this collaboration and the decision to cast the Q- Kidz. The energy, the beauty, the power of that community centre was really what brought this film to life. The sisterhood and joy of the Q-Kidz in their everyday lives was a huge inspiration to me and something that I really wanted to try to capture and express through our collaboration. I was in awe of their power. I hope that comes across on screen.
Ava DuVernay and [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins have both been very supportive of your work. What does that mean to you?
I'm in awe of their work and even to have them view my film let alone support it in any way is really special. I feel very hopeful about the future because of work like theirs. It feels very significant. I'm really inspired by the body of work of this collective peer group that I'm entering in to. Having other filmmakers connect with and enter into dialogue with your work is a dream.
Over the last few years, do you think there has been a positive shift in the way young women are portrayed on screen?
For so long, there was such a dominant, narrow gaze of what characters were considered universal characters who were privileged to occupy that coming-of-age or childhood on screen. I think that's expanding in so many ways with powerful girls on screen and with films like Moonlight. We felt like there was a space that was missing, a coming-of-age story about girls that wasn't about sexual coming of age. One of the reasons I love [Swedish-Danish punk film] We Are the Best! is that it is a film that occupies that same space about self-definition.
Have you read reviews of your film? Has that taught you anything new about how people can look at an image and load it with different feelings?
The trick with reading reviews is that you really have to have set your own internal system first. You need to know what the film means to you as an artist and define what its success is first. You have to really understand the subjectivity and point of every author. It is exciting to continue to learn about your films through the eyes of different audience members. That's been fascinating for me on this first film.
The Fits is out on home entertainment on March 20 in the UK.
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