Anna Rose Holmer’s hypnotic debut feature film, The Fits, takes the well-trodden coming-of-age genre and sets it to an entirely new beat.

From her fascination with historical cases of hysterics and contagion phenomenon, first time feature filmmaker, Anna Rose Holmer, stumbled across cases of episodes occurring among teenage girls in the USA. What she learnt was that they often seemed to take place among, “tight-knit groups of girls with a strong hierarchical structure”, remained largely unsolved or unexplained and, for her, at least, filmed evidence of these episodes on smart phones and devices somehow looked like excerpts from dance choreography, “Re-imagining these subconscious movements as choreographies provided the foundation of the film.” 

The result is a beguiling tale, about an eleven-year-old girl who not only wants to join the local dance troupe at her gym, but who feels compelled to. Bewitched, just from watching their practice, Toni (Royalty Hightower) steps bravely onto the uncertain precipice of adolescence, gently rocking back and forth between girlhood and the rights of empowered female passage. Holmer, with a deft hand, conducts a symphonic drama, poetically in sync with the thematic waves of pubescent power and participation. 

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Though many of the cases she came across featured cheerleaders, Holmer soon discovered the thrilling battle routines of YouTube sensation, Q-Kidz. It was an immediate and obvious fit;

A cell phone video recording of The Q- Kidz Junior Squad doing a stand battle was suggested, and I had a very strong emotional connection to it right away. From that first video clip, I knew instinctively that drill was the dance form for The Fits that I had been looking for. In stand battle, the captain of the team picks a routine on her own and dances the first few steps. The team immediately mimics her and they dance in unison. This call and response through movement spoke to the greater themes of the film because the tension between individuality and conformity is present in the dance form itself. Also, drill has a narrative element to it, often incorporating mundane movements: punches, laughter, hair styling, etc. into the choreography. I fell in love with drill and the Q-Kidz simultaneously. We never considered any other team.

It also meant casting the girls from the real life drill team. Marquicia Jones-Woods, founder of Q-Kidz, came on board before the first draft of the script was dry. Forty-five of the two hundred girls who make up Q-Kidz were cast in the film and Holmer brought dancer/filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall together with lead coaches and choreographers for Q-Kidz, Mariah and Chariah Jones, to create a visual rhythm that moves across dance battle sequences and into the visual language of the film itself.

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The Fits brings a searing score, punctuated by a piercing clarinet, together with 8-count dance routines and carefully measured, aurally absorbing breath to create a constant, trance-like rhythm; the primary function of which is to set the tone for the enraptured fainting and fitting that escalates in the narrative world onscreen but, which secondarily serves to suture the viewer into experiencing the titular fits offscreen.

The entire film, then, is set to drill choreography, the two most featured forms of which are stand-battle and parade. Q-Kidz founder, Marquicia Jones-Woods explains those forms;

PARADE is a basic, general movement done while marching down the street mostly 8 counts and very short dance snippets to entertain and get the parade attendees involved, bringing some excitement and participation to the crowds. It’s crazy fun, but sometimes we end up taking the parade with us and that’s not good to have the attendees dancing down the street behind you. The parade officials don’t like that but we love the fact that it gets the people up and involved — at least they leave the parade feeling good and they could bust a few dance moves they didn’t know they still had.

STAND-BATTLE is when several teams compete on the dance floor by throwing 8-16-24 counts back and forth, while still providing good technique and expressing themselves through movements. The team with the most fire and technique moves on to the next round and they battle it out with several more rounds to get a CHAMP. It’s the most fun in competition because it brings out the fight in a good way.

Toni, straddling the bar between girlhood and maturity, ebbs and flows between the two: 1) sometimes sticking with the status quo, standing in line, taking up her place in parade and 2) taking adolescent participation to another level, empowering herself through stand-battle, in the hope of elevating uncertain experiences above and beyond the pressures of fitting in, desperately hoping to become the champ protagonist of her own story.

Strong, strange and sensationally hypnotic, Anna Rose Holmer’s debut explores issues of adolescence in sync with a stunning visual and aural rhythm.

Written by Tara Judah for Conversations About Cinema. Interview excerpts taken from The Fits’ official press release. 

Tara Judah is an Australian critic, broadcaster and programmer based in the UK. Director at 20th Century Flicks video shop, Curator and Online Editor for Cinema Rediscovered, Co-ordinator for Bristol Scalarama and co-host of film podcast Cinema Blindspot, Tara is passionate about cinema-going and photochemical film. She is also a regular contributor to Monocle24’s Arts Review and Cinema Show, Senses of Cinema, Desist Film, The Big Issue and a Contributing Editor at Metro magazine. Her work has appeared in various other online and print publications and she regularly hosts Q&A events in Bristol. She is @midnightmovies on Twitter.