“The Fits,” the feature fiction debut of Anna Rose Holmer, is all of 72 minutes long. It rarely leaves the inner-city community center in which most of the action takes place or the side of the 11-year-old girl whose story it tells. Yet as slight as that sounds, the movie is a nearly perfect thing, made with such assurance that every shot holds weight and widens your heart. Indeed, by the final frames, “The Fits” seems to contain the entire world. Almost all of that world is in the face of the film’s lead actress, Royalty Hightower.
What a name! (She has a sister named Yrmajesti and a brother named King.) And what a face, as regal and leonine as that name implies and the movie requires. When we first see Hightower’s character, a Cincinnati preadolescent named Toni, she’s doing sit-ups in the community center’s boxing gym, hoving into close-up with each rep and staring the audience down. She knows exactly who she is. But does she know who she wants to be?
The movie quickly and wordlessly establishes that Toni is a tomboy and something of a loner, that her teenage brother (Da’Sean Minor) is her mentor in the ring and maybe her only friend. She’s driven, and while we don’t see enough of her outside life to know exactly what she’s escaping from, we don’t have to. With the eye of a born filmmaker, Holmer tells us all we need to know with a bare minimum of dialogue or exposition.
We can tell Toni’s steeling herself for the punches she senses are coming in life. But then she watches the competitive drill team of high school girls practicing in the center’s common areas, and suddenly she wants to be one of them: older, worldly, sexy, belonging. A woman. Again, none of this is articulated, and all of it is as clear as day.
She tries out for the drill team, along with several other younger girls: a motor-mouthed imp named Beezy (Alexis Neblett), the warily watchful Maia (Lauren Gibson). The big girls make them do the scut work, and Toni accepts her place on the ladder. She understands about dues.
“The Fits” has wordplay buried in its title: It’s about fitting in, but it’s also about the unexplained seizures that first hit one of the drill team members, then another, then another, until the phenomenon is leaking onto the local news on the center’s lobby TV. Is it something in the water? Adolescent hysteria? “The Crucible” in Cincinnati? “The Fits” is loosely based on actual events, but it hovers on the edges of fable and urban legend, Holmer’s gaze locked tightly into her characters’ frame of reference.
Toni’s response is both shocked and fascinated. You sense she’s wondering: Is this part of adulthood? Is this the jolt I have to suffer in crossing over from childhood? Or even: Am I somehow the cause of this? The movie could be an anthropological study if the director weren’t so empathetic toward her heroine and if Hightower didn’t reward that empathy with a performance of pure presence. The entire movie is present, actually, in ways we rarely see in our filmed entertainments. Although it’s a much quieter, more observant experience, I watched “The Fits” the way I watched original visions like “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — with my mouth agape.
Holmer captures a strong, silent young woman’s rite of passage with grace notes of humanity, even humor: Toni piercing her ears in the community center’s bathroom as her friends comment and help out; the brother looking aghast at those pierced ears and muttering “Mom’s gonna kill me.” (Not her — him.) And there’s a wordless sequence on a grimy pedestrian overpass in which Toni starts sparring the air and her movements turn to dance and suddenly she’s finding her own real groove. I wouldn’t trade that scene for any other moment onscreen this year.
The ending, too, is a minor miracle — a sort of poetic win-win that, unlike almost anything else in popular culture right now, sends you out on a small cloud of hope. “The Fits” is what independent moviemaking should be and can be in this country. Like its heroine, it’s slight but it’s built to last.
Directed by Anna Rose Holmer. Written by Holmer, Saela Davis, and Lisa Kjerulff. Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Da’Sean Minor. At Brattle. 72 minutes. Unrated.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
A previous version of this story misspelled Royalty Hightower’s sister’s name. It’s Yrmajesti.