fits_onesheet_final2.inddToni (Royalty Hightower) trains as a boxer with her brother at a community center in Cincinnati’s West End, but she becomes fascinated by the dance team that also practices there. Enamored by their strength and confidence, Toni eventually joins the group, eagerly absorbing routines, mastering drills, and even piercing her own ears to fit in. As she discovers the joys of dance and of female camaraderie, she grapples with her individual identity amid her newly defined social sphere. Shortly after Toni joins the team, the captain faints during practice. By the end of the week, most of the girls on the team suffer from episodes of fainting, swooning, moaning, and shaking in a seemingly uncontrollable catharsis. Soon, however, the girls on the team embrace these mysterious spasms, transforming them into a rite of passage. Toni fears “the fits” but is equally afraid of losing her place just as she’s found her footing. Caught between her need for control and her desire for acceptance, Toni must decide how far she will go to embody her new ideals. Gorgeously shot and with a mesmerizing score, The Fits is a fascinating portrait of adolescence and an impressive debut feature from Anna Rose Holmer. I sat down with Holmer in Los Angeles to discuss the haunting film.

Danny Miller: It’s thrilling to see such an original, compelling film about adolescent girls. As I was leaving the theater, a lot of people were buzzing about the movie’s “fits.” What were they really? What caused them? What kind of metaphor did they represent? How do you feel when people come to you for the “answers” to such questions?

annaroseholmerAnna Rose Holmer: My perspective is that all answers are the right answer. We intentionally made this film open — we were more interested in posing questions, not making a statement. It really excites me when I hear varied interpretations of the film because that means each audience member is bringing his or her own experience to Toni’s experience — that’s what we wanted. The film is experiential — almost like being in a dream or a kind of memory space.

It’s interesting how you tease us at first about what could be causing the fits but then the film goes in a different direction.

The seed of the story was based on our research of real cases of mass psychogenic illness which is sometimes called “hysteria.” And very often those cases are unresolved, there is this kind of mystique around it. We wanted to embrace that mystery.

Were most of the cases you researched from far in the past?

No, there are some contemporary ones as well, and even after we finished the film there was an outbreak in a community in Uruguay. It actually happens fairly frequently and the trend is towards groups of adolescent girls in tight-knit communities where there’s a clear hierarchy of social status.

Fascinating. And then it brings up the question of whether it’s really happening to all the girls in the film who experience fits or if some are “faking” it just to fit in.

I think we’re definitely exploring the idea of identity as performance in the film but in all the cases that we researched, the individual experiences were very real — powerful moments in the lives of these girls. So we wanted to embrace the “realness” of it even though we also go into this allegorical meditative kind of space.

Did you talk to the girls about what was going on with each character — whether some were experiencing this phenomena completely out of the blue and others might have been helping it along a bit?

We decided early on that each performer needed to think on her own about what was going on with her character. The fits themselves were designed by our movement consultant, Celia Rowlson-Hall, in conjunction with each girl. They worked on them in isolation, there was no visual reference for what the fit should look like, which is why the fits from one girl to the next look very different on screen. That was important to us — we wanted each girl to be unique, including their co-authorship of what was going on from their character’s perspective. Using the fits as a way to talk about character was very exciting for me as a director.


The performances in this film are really wonderful. I know you used a lot of non-actors in your cast — how many came to the film without any acting experience at all?

All of them! Every girl that you see in the film comes from the Q-Kidz dance team in Cincinnati where we shot the film, including Royalty — she’s been dancing with them since she was six. We decided to cast everyone from that close-knit group and used 45 girls out of a team of a few hundred.

Wow. So no matter how great their auditions were, it still must have required a leap of faith on your part!

A lot of it was just gut feeling. Royalty was about the eighth girl to read for Toni and the minute I met her, I was just blown away. In real life she’s not like Toni at all but she has this amazing capacity to listen and reflect — qualities that were required for that character.

Did she already have boxing experience?

No, she trained for about three weeks for that. But she dances for hours every day so she was already an athlete.

It must have been tricky for her to dance badly at the beginning of the film when she first tries our for the team.

Yeah, we had to choreograph all of that with Celia. But we made sure that we incorporated some boxing moves into the routines so that Toni would have some moments of relief in her awkwardness and could really shine.

Did you use elements of the girls’ real lives in the movie?

Not really. The Q-Kidz are very different from the Lionesses. The movie is pure fiction but the building we shot in is where they actually practice. In terms of the dialogue, we workshopped the script and they were allowed to change anything they didn’t feel was right. They kept telling me that some of the dialogue was “throwback” because I was Toni’s age in 1996 — teenagers don’t talk that way anymore! So everything was on the table but by the time we got to shooting day, those words were printed in the script, we didn’t do any improv.

Throughout history, the concept of “hysteria” has been used against women in certain situations. Did you talk about that?

Yeah, I think we nodded to that in terms of Toni’s conversations with her brother. He thinks it’s all in their heads and that girls are crazy. It’s true these things are often dismissed. But Toni is really driving the story here and she’s such a powerful character. We were trying to paint a nuanced, complex portrait of what it means to be a girl — and to use that theme to explore female identity.


The way friendships between the girls is depicted is so moving. I love the relationship between Toni and Beezy.

One of the things we wanted to convey is that at this age, friendships often occur because of arbitrary factors like your locker is next to someone else’s. That’s what happens with them, Beezy just ends up sitting next to Toni on the first day of auditions and they become friends. There’s something so easy and simple about it. And Beezy teaches Toni so much about joy and play and freedom — Toni really needed to interact with someone like that.

That actress who played Beezy was also so good.

Oh, Alexis Neblett was a joy to work with! Her comedic timing was genius — she was like a little Buster Keaton. In real life, Alexis and Royalty are actually stepsisters, but I didn’t know that until after I cast them!

I also loved how, unlike many communities of young athletic girls, here different body sizes and shapes seemed to have no bearing on whether they were suitable for the team.

Yes, it’s true. It’s not about uniformity in appearance, that’s not what their dancing is about at all. If you notice, we even made it a point to give every girl a different hairstyle in the film so that even when they’re in their uniforms, they’re still individuals. Part of our message was that there’s not just one way to be a girl.

Do you think now that they’ve had a taste of it that some of them will want to pursue acting?

I hope that they see there’s a future in that for them if they want it. And not just acting — I remember Alexis was interested in the idea of directing. We’ll see if any of them pursue it but it’s hard not to imagine Royalty doing more work. Royalty is a total star!

The Fits is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and will be opening in other cities in the coming weeks.