In anybody else’s hands The Fits carefully thematic balancing act of the uncertainty and disorientation of early adolescence might not have worked. We’ve all seen examples. Perhaps, it would’ve fallen foul of cliché or presented its finding in too prosaic a fashion to keep anyone’s attention. Or maybe it would’ve been another coming-of-age tale that too readily abandons a young woman’s story in favour of a facile first love narrative. Or become just another film patterned upon overt gender essentialism. Thankfully Anna Rose Holmer isn’t just anybody, and The Fits willingness to develop a familiar set of equations in a new way, while masterfully edging us into uncharted territories has made it one of the most astounding debuts of our newly sprung year.

Tapping into this fraught time of figuring things out, we meet eleven year old Toni. A tomboyish boxer, she’s perched on the edge of adolescence, a time that all conventional wisdom points to as one of the most confusing in a young person’s development. Royalty Hightower as Toni, from her first instant on screen, shows the fierce determination that maybe only 11 year olds can muster. However, when she considers going out from under her older brother’s pugilistic wing in favour of joining a dance team, that resolve wavers. Her brother advises “The only way you can lose a fight is if you don’t get in the ring” and soon boxing gloves are traded for dance practice. And when the dance team begin to suffer a series of unexplained fits, all our narrative expectations are upended at once.

Always making good on the mysterious promise of its aesthetic, The Fits moods are mercurial. These swift tonal shifts are never volatile, however, instead they are bright signals that coax the audience to more readily interpret its story. The fits (lowercase) might be allegorical, they could even be about subversion, submission, protest or the closely knit camaraderie of conversion disorder. It’s all up for grabs. They may even be scientifically explained by contaminated water, a ghastly premonition of the real life ongoing tragedy of Flint Michigan. Events which prefigured and were never the source for Holmer’s piece, but still can’t escape exact relevancy when viewing The Fits (uppercase).

Interpreting it’s strangeness, knowing and misunderstanding the world refracted just through its protagonist Toni might even be a red herring. In fact, The Fits’ rarely adult punctuated world more so makes us concerned with the gait of these young people’s stance, the movements of boxing or dance and the theatrical choreography of the fits themselves. Sound, percussive dance movement and teasing gothic clarinet, violent fainting spells that are babbled, silent or choking, transcendent, quasi-religious and ecstatic; are all part of the fits. And they quickly become the best reflection of this narrative and a refraction of the society that formed it.

Made in combination with an experimental programme in the Venice Biennale, The Fits roars out of view at just a sliver over sixty minutes, managing masterpiece without the three hour run-time and ending on a note so hopeful that you’re just about okay not to have spent longer with it.

To start off, what was the setup with the film?

At first, we didn’t know what type of dance we were going to use or where we were going to set it. It was more about the themes and the story structure. I knew from the beginning that I really wanted to collaborate with a real dance team and work with girls that knew each other. I felt like there was a fabric of connectivity that we couldn’t cast or create.

I found the Q-kidz dance team after months of looking both in real life and on youtube. I saw a little clip of them and instantaneously had a bolt of lightning connection. I then called up there head coach Marquicia Jones Woods (who later came on as the executive producer of the film) and asked if they wanted to collaborate. The answer was a resounding “Yes!” We created a whole screenplay and script and we brought it back to Cinncinati for casting. Royalty Hightower had been dancing with the Q-kidz since she was six years old and it was kind of an incredibly serendipitous find in that she auditioned on day one. Royalty in the lead is incredible, generous, giving and a real joy to work with. I can’t imagine the film without her, her presence as a performer and as a collaborator.

One of the things that intrigued me about your film is that it maybe takes a very familiar set of equations and it turns them on their head. I guess I’m asking…. gender roles, whose got them why do people want them?

It’s a catchphrase of mine, I always say “Why are the rules the rules”. It’s one of things I’m always thinking about. Who set those rules, who defined those rules and what power structure are they upholding? I think in that way we can question everything. We knew that our audience would be coming to the table with lots of expectations, whether those expectations were of gender or genre or film structure, and we wanted to use those tools to help us get to the finish line. We wanted to question the rules that really have just become kind of defaults, unexamined thinking or practices. The genre was really exciting; it’s not really a dance film, it’s not really horror film, it’s not quite a coming-of-age film, it’s not quite a psychological drama, but there are elements of those.

What’s the difference between the child’s world and the adult’s world? And do you think it’s easier to talk about subjects like this because of that difference?

Yeah, I mean, I think one of the challenges that we had was that we had an introverted protagonist that’s eleven driving the action. So there’s immediately a huge difference between her self-awareness and what she knows versus what the audience knows. But we really wanted to empower her throughout the film. One of the ways to do that is to not really allow the audience to move beyond her comprehension and her understanding. You don’t want the audience’s intellect and self-awareness to diminish that of your character. There’s a benefit because it allowed us a lot of ambiguity. But it was also a challenge because we wanted to lift her up as our guide. So, we actually had to do a lot to bring the audience into her direct POV. That was really what every choice was about.

The fits as a symbolic elements grows and a lot of the film is about dance, a lot of the film is about physicality, do you think it’s somehow transcending the dialogue, can you talk about that a little bit?

The fits themselves really evolved and go and undergo a transformation in of themselves and of what they mean internally in the film. They’re terrifying and then they’re kind of contagious and then it’s thrilling and exciting and exclusive and desirable. The fits are always manifesting in a different way as Toni’s understanding of this shift inside of her is changing. And so we wanted the form of the film to mirror that internal shift, so as Toni’s understanding grows so does the cinematic language of the film.

And dance?

One of the real one hundred percent starting points is what is the difference between intentional and unintentional movement. Those movements look exactly the same. What does that mean? How should we read those movements differently? Even just how Toni carries her shoulders and how she breathes. We were always trying to distill the emotional content, the emotional meaning and place that in the body. This film is about Toni and Toni’s journey, so all the bodies on screen are opportunities to express her inner state and her journey. So there was a lot about contrast and internal vs external but yeah I don’t know. I don’t know if I answered the question you were asking.

Well, my question was very broad and that was a good answer but I guess more acutely asking when the question for a child or a group of young men or young women is too big, do you think you can answer that question through movement or through dance? You obviously came a stunning conclusion.

Oh, I see, to tackle big questions through an expression that’s not just verbal that’s not just through language? I mean that was one of the gifts of this film. We were working with kids who are dancers, these are kids who compete nationally, they’re brilliant at exactly that. Taking the structures and the emotions and fears and anxieties and joys and happiness and laughter and turning that into dance. Well, dance is a beautiful art form for doing that. And I also think that that is mirrored in boxing too, there’s this grace and fluidity and strength in that art form that I think can supercede language. There’s something just kind of fundamental about dance that we really all understand. When you look at someone and you smile, your reaction to smiling, there’s a shared language, and those gestures can be very big or they can be very small. I think that dance is such a gift in terms of real world expression and within the film itself.

In a lot of films that use conversion disorder as a metaphor, somehow quite often it’s very situated in the adult world, and very strongly oppositionally against the adult populace. You know some kind of subjugation / control or some kind of societal force that’s somehow pushing people to behave in this way? In your film it’s very much about a fraternity as well.

There was an idea of adults but I think that I was more interested in the creation of a society not an imposed society, I guess, if that makes sense? That there is already a hierarchy in that and to introduce adults too strongly into this narrative would have taken away power from the older girls on the team. And I also think that in a way to view the episodes through the lens of adults would make it seem silly, or frivolous or hysterical or childish and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that lens to be put on our cast. Simply by having adults very present, in the same way that they never performed for an audience except for each other; they never fight for spectators. This is only about performing for each other, and negotiating spaces in front of each other as contemporaries.

Words by Cormac O’Brien

The Fits is in UK cinemas from Feb 24th.