Though the concept of hysteria has a much longer history, in the American cultural imagination, it all seems to start (per Arthur Miller) with pointed fingers in Salem, Massachusetts. Hysteria is a story told about women, especially young women, and it's a story in which fear for teenage girls becomes indistinguishable from fear of them. They are, in any case, untrustworthy: There’s nothing sicker or witchier than adolescence, what with its baffling rites of passage, its brew of hormones and blood, the body simultaneously vulnerable and corrupting. The hysteria narrative resurfaced most recently and prominently in Susan Dominus’s 2012 New York Times Magazine story “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy,” which centered on an unresolved epidemic of spasms and stuttering among local teenagers; the incident was subsequently novelized (twice!) in Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Katherine Howe’s Conversion. Spoiler alert: The illness typically turns out to be sexual jealousy. And the infections, though treated as alien invaders, expose a community's preexisting internal fault lines.
In The Fits, director Anna Rose Holmer transposes this tale to an all-black community of athletes in Cincinnati, and into a lower key. The plot is bare bones, the film minimal and withholding, unwilling to spell out its secrets. Through the eyes of the preteen protagonist, Toni, we follow the onset of the illness from the outside in: We can observe its effects, but no inner monologue holds our hands through the experience. First seen in boxing practice with her older brother, Jermaine, Toni abandons the sport and joins the girls’ dance squad, the Lionesses. Her initiation into the Lionesses’ feminine world is tentative and uneasy. Nothing comes naturally: It always takes her a split second longer to adopt the behaviors and mannerisms that seem instinctive to her peers. Then, starting with the captains, girls on the squad start to convulse and collapse. With their leaders in the hospital—and no obvious cause for their sickness—the squad cancels an upcoming meet. They resume practices with reduced numbers, smothered in fear.
As seen in their rec center, the teenagers’ worlds are relentlessly gender-segregated, the two connected only by a single beige hallway. Here, gender is binary, with masculinity and femininity constructed in opposition to each other. Girls dance; boys box. The girls stand in formation; the boys fight as individuals. Girls are measured; boys are weighed. The girls’ locker room features a poster of a pizza, declaring “teamwork makes the team work”; in their space, boys grab for their slices of a freshly delivered pie. Despite a couple of unexpected inversions—it’s the boys who are ordered to shed some pounds and whose blood must be washed from white linens—The Fits is less interested in the content of these rules than their rigidity. For whether it’s counted in sit-ups or to the downbeat of a routine, Toni’s physicality is regimented. No matter what side she chooses to stand on—with the boys or with the girls—she ends up at the doorway, gazing hungrily at the other room through a pane of safety glass.
So far, for the 11-year-old, changes are imposed externally rather than originating from within. Growing up isn’t glandular just yet: These gender roles are pantomime, or sequined dress-up—at least, when they’re fun. Growing up is also the tattoo that she passively allows her best friend to press on her skin; it’s the nail polish she chips off, the mic picking up every scrape; it’s the ear piercing she does herself in the bathroom (and later removes, due to infection). So when the other Lionnesses begin to seize up, the unnameable illness just complements Toni’s broader anxieties about fitting in. Soon the hysteria filters down through the ranks, threatening even the youngest of the group. Though it’s suggested that the water is contaminated, no one finds this explanation satisfying. Toni’s friends whisper about the disease, sounding worried and fascinated—wishing, almost despite themselves, to access even this aspect of womanhood.
Throughout, The Fits feels like a lab experiment: scrupulously executed under controlled conditions. Confined to the gym and its immediate environs, the movie sets up a Petri dish of puberty. This is adolescence without adulthood as a destination. Here, no grown-up authority intervenes: the dance coach, seen only briefly and from the back, delegates to the team captains; a nurse turns up at some point—too late—as do the parents, who eventually assemble at the rec center for a town meeting. The Fits studies socialization in a vacuum, cut off from educational, domestic, or even online spaces. The enterprise feels aloof, even academic, neatly outlining its hypothesis, methodology, and the scope of its questions. Like all experiments, it can tell you some things but not everything. However rigorous, this style of inquiry curtails the possibility of surprise. While leaving plenty unsaid, The Fits rarely achieves the thrill of discovery.
Holmer, who’s worked on several dance documentaries and shorts, has an honest fascination with physical expression. But as her lens attentively observes bodies and their vocabularies, she and her cowriters remain silent about life beyond the gym. The dialogue’s occasional flatness, especially for the youngest children, further hurts the film. It opens a gap between the actors’ physical and verbal performances. The cast’s natural rapport (they’re all part of a real-life drill team, the Q-Kidz) strains against their lines. It feels like they’re itching to get back to their real conversations; you wish you could hear what they talk about when the cameras stop rolling. This opacity is troubling: It is as if, in choosing unusual subjects for this hysteria story—black girls, not the default white; bodily prowess, not delicacy—the filmmakers stopped, leaving their subjectivity blank. The cinematography and soundtrack (that unsettling clarinet!) do work to express Toni’s interiority, moving through curiosity, wistfulness, and apprehension; Toni’s anxiety forms the spine of the film. A lot rests on the talent of Royalty Hightower, who gives an arresting performance in the leading role. Yet we come away knowing very little about the broader play of her mind, like what she daydreams about, her likes and dislikes, her idea of what’s fun or funny. We are kept at a deliberate distance.
The movie’s sense of psychology, so thoroughly physicalized, verges on mechanistic—that is, until we arrive at the final scene, which somehow seems both inevitable and liberated. The Fits finally leaves this materialist plane and enters the realm of the dream sequence, complete with costumes and slo-mo choreography. Its abiding reticence deepens into mystery. And if that mystery’s meaning leans a little heavily on music-video-cool, in this scene, Holmer does something we haven’t seen before: She leaps before she looks. All that resolutely realist, disciplined work was actually a workout. It was training for when she would take a risk, making a grab for pure wonder. In these moments, as a song asks, “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?,” Toni gets to be unselfconscious. We’re lifted into her fantasy of transcendence as escape. It’s bittersweet. Some of the weight on her narrow shoulders has been artificially imposed by this movie’s focused, bordering on deterministic, vision. But still: We feel, with piercing clarity, her desire for flight.