Wednesday 22 February 2017

Body rock: "The Fits"

Although a relative pipsqueak at a mere 70 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer's debut The Fits arrives as a motion picture in the truest and best sense of the phrase: barely a frame goes by without somebody buzzing around and bumping up against it, agitated, like a wasp in a baker's front window. The setting is a run-of-the-mill community college, somewhere in the modern American inner-city, where we find pre-teen Toni (the remarkable Royalty Hightower, very nearly as good as her name) sparring with her older brother, a boxer-in-training. While changing a water bottle within the building, she spies the college's resident dance troupe, the Lionesses, throwing down some ferocious moves on the next floor. This proves as much a Eureka moment as anything in Moonlight: for perhaps the first time, our tomboyish tyke heroine finds herself exclusively among women, inhabiting a secret world - or alien planet - of lipgloss and locker-room chat about boys. The idea we may be watching a form of science fiction is floated by an atonal soundtrack, which couldn't be any further removed from, say, the drumlines and peppy pop of the Bring It On films (Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans previously scored 2013's freaky Enemy); it only intensifies when, as in Carol Morley's The Falling, junior Lionesses start collapsing in rehearsals, as if shot by a tranquiliser dart. Is it the physical effort? Something in the water, as some of the background chatter would indicate? Or could it just be a phase these girls are passing through?

Few low-budget films, certainly, have made a change of scenery - a change of floor - within their primary location feel so significant. Toni is advancing a level in more ways than one: she's moving from childhood into adolescence, from defending herself to expressing herself, from following in somebody else's footsteps to making up her own. She will get there step by erratic step, and as her journey progresses and stalls with the cancellation of classes, Holmer collects images that conjure up that particularly gooey, sticky or otherwise unruly moment in our development: an overhead shot of pugilists setting about a freshly delivered pizza like jackals, a close-up of Toni picking at the sponged-on tattoo on her bicep, apparently shedding her skin. Yet this filmmaker - herself crossing over from documentary - also knows when to stand further back and marvel at her young cast entertaining themselves, improvising routines in the college corridors, finding their own ways to move on what passes for the plot - or crisis situation, whatever you take that to be. It can feel as slender-inchoate as its heroine (its pithiest review may come from the head Lioness, measuring Toni up for her competition costume: "You skinny"); caught awkwardly between extended pop promo and fully-fledged feature, Holmer appears to be sketching out themes and ideas she'd like to explore in greater depth (and with more money) at a later date. Still, its kinetic energy is undeniable, and such relentless whirlwind movement allows Holmer to capture the frantic strangeness of adolescence - that feeling of not knowing what your limbs (and other appendages) are going to do next, how vulnerable or invulnerable you are, what the world has in store for you. And for anybody with a thesis to write on cinema and the body, or any interest whatsoever in dance on film, it's right there waiting, restless and irrepressible, stomping and kicking its feet.

The Fits opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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