In Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” 10-year-old actress Royalty Hightower pulls off a feat that takes an entire career for some experienced thespians to achieve: a silent film-style performance. Through her largely nonverbal boxer turned dancer Toni, Hightower establishes pathos quickly and never lets up.
Unlike the silent actors of Hollywood’s golden age, she does not have to define her character by what – or how much – she does. Expressive action is not necessary to move dialogue-free plot given all the sonic tools in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Holmer can use the camera of Paul Yee to capture the subtlety in Toni’s yearning. Her attraction to the more feminine girls on the other side of the door in her gym makes no sense, even to herself. But “The Fits” never tries to explain the newfound passion for rhythm and dance, simply capturing Toni’s looks of admiration even as they are greeted in return with scornful curiosity.
As the camera stares deeper, events get stranger. A spate of heavy breathing spasms overcome the dance crew’s leaders, and Toni seems indirectly responsible for it all. In spite of (or maybe because of?) the freak occurrences, she begins coming into her own with the footwork.
At one point during “The Fits,” the camera lingers on a shot of Toni’s self-examination, which then turns into practice for her dancing routine. It feels like she’s performing directly for us, but about a minute later, Holmer reveals that she’s looking into a mirror. It’s a performance for herself. As the smirking grin that creeps onto Toni’s face in the film’s final shot indicates, the film is hyperaware of an audience outside the frame – and it’s not afraid to toy with those viewers playfully. Perhaps Toni is performing a similar alchemy within the film itself. B+ /