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Encountering the Mystical in the ‘The Fits’
Image: Courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures

If you’re looking for a film that inspires lively conversation, you’ve got to check out The Fits. Anna Rose Helmer’s debut feature film runs a brief, but intense, 72 minutes, leaving plenty of time for discussion and debate afterwards. It caused a stir last year at Sundance, and critics have been talking about it ever since. Fortunately, Amazon Prime subscribers can currently stream it for free—and for the rest of us, it’s available for rent or purchase.

Here’s the premise:

Toni (played by an astonishing discovery named Royalty Hightower) is a soft-spoken but hard-thinking 11-year-old girl who, in her lonely afterschool hours, is wandering unwittingly toward an outbreak of mass hysteria. She spends her days drifting around her Cincinnati community center, moving back and forth from her brother Jermaine’s boxing practice (where she is an awestruck observer in the world of boys) to the territory of the Lionesses, a highly competitive and hierarchical dance team (in which she is an awkward beginner).

Sometimes, it’s challenging: We ponder Toni’s lonely silences and awkward exchanges with girls younger and older. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating: We watch her slowly begin to find her feet in an unsteady environment. And sometimes, it’s unsettling: Toni witnesses other girls on the Lionesses’ dance team succumbing to sudden “fits” that resemble strokes, seizures, sexual ecstasy, or spiritual epiphany.

And that’s the fun of the after-movie discussion: What do these fits mean?

I showed The Fits to film classes at both Seattle Pacific University and Northwest University this month, and each time my students filled an hour (and could have kept going) with difficult questions, personal insights, and surprising interpretations.

They have all kinds of ideas. With the toxic water of Flint, Michigan, and the endangered water of the Standing Rock community still making headlines, some think it’s a film about the environmental dangers suffered by vulnerable low-income communities. Others see it as a poetic representation of adolescence and all its awkward rites of passage (particularly for women). One of my students observed, “While [puberty] can be a scary thing, it creates unity in a group.” Some decided that The Fits is about “finding your voice” or “discovering your calling,” or even struggling with questions of sexual orientation. A few talked peer pressure—especially pressures related to sex. One student summed it up as a story about “the psychological need for belonging and acceptance.”

I introduced them to Alissa Wilkinson’s personal reflection on the film, previously published here in Christianity Today. Wilkinson writes that The Fits “captures—without judgement or condescension—the strangeness of being part of a microcosm where your place in the pecking order is determined by something nonsensical and mystical, something adults don't understand and other teenagers outside your group view disdainfully.”

Explore further and you’ll find that the filmmakers were considering “historic cases of hysteria and mass psychogenic illness” from the Middle Ages to as recently as the 1960s. For Holmer, the film served primarily as “an allegory about the power of dance and what it means to really give into that power.”

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