Visually and Sonically, ‘The Fits’ Is a Wonderfully Weird Debut

After a misfit 11-year-old joins a dance team, her peers succumb to mysterious seizures.

One way you can spot a strong new movie director is by listening to what she does with the soundtrack—not the music, although that’s part of it, but the whole sonic enchilada. I like a lot of things about The Fits, and the first thing that got me was the way it sounds. As the film evokes one Cincinnati girl’s bumpy journey into the mysteries of adolescence, the soundtrack ripples with densely layered noise: the slap of feet on a hardwood floor during dance practice, the rhythmic meeting of boxing gloves in the workout room, the specific way a song echoes in a big empty school gym. The noises are realistic enough, but when they’re piled atop each other, it all sounds like a dream.

The Fits is written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, who developed the story with editor Saela Davis and producer Lisa Kjerulff. But “story” isn’t the right word, because The Fits is more an immersion into one girl’s point of view as she tries to figure out her identity during a peculiar time at her school. When we meet Toni (played by Royalty Hightower), she is working out in the school gym, emulating her hardworking older brother. But Toni isn’t entirely a jock yet; she gazes through a school doorway (a lot of people look through doorways in this movie) in the direction of dance practice, where the school’s glamorous “Lionesses” are rehearsing. Toni tries out for the squad, and although she can’t get the rhythm at first—her body is still attuned to the grim routine of exercise rather than dance—she eventually finds the beat. This breakthrough happens in a great sequence done in a single shot, of Toni dancing alone on a freeway overpass, as though shouting her skills to the world.

Toni is otherwise quiet, a cautious observer—The Fits is practically a visual poem on the topic of introversion—in marked contrast to her classmate, Beezy, who tries out for the squad at the same time. The irrepressible Beezy is played by Alexis Neblett, a girl with a lot of pepper—somebody’s probably developing a sitcom for her right now. But something else is going on at school. The older Lionesses are suffering from fainting spells, or seizures, or … something. Maybe the drinking water is bad, school officials say, or maybe it’s the power of suggestion. Whatever it is—and don’t expect an answer—Holmer clearly sees it as deeply connected to the experience of teenage girldom. The girls who have had fits carry the aura of having been somewhere special; some of the girls who haven’t are longing to join the club. After Beezy faints one day and Toni says something to her later on the subject, Beezy snaps, “What would you know about it?”

The film has no scenes of home life, and almost no grown-ups. This is all about the hothouse of youth. Cinematographer Paul Yee’s camera is often low, at kid level, reinforcing the idea that what we’re looking at is Toni’s way of seeing. To that end, Holmer makes ordinary places seem charged with possibility or strangeness: When Toni and Beezy break into the gym at night and try on the brand-new sparkly dance costumes, it’s a grand adventure; when Toni hops into the school’s emptied swimming pool, it becomes a big, lonely cavern.

Back to that soundtrack. Along with the interesting ambient noises, there is music, maybe the most distinctive movie music since Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin. Composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (they did the cool scores for Martha Marcy May Marlene and Enemy), the music sounds a little like experimental jazz mixed with the hand-clapping rhythm of cheerleader chants. Like so much about The Fits, it makes the familiar into something new. The Fits, Unrated, SIFF Cinema Uptown., Opens Fri. July 8.