The Fits Is A Film About Female Loss & A Mysterious Sickness

Not quite five years ago, in the small town of LeRoy, NY, teenage girls began to twitch. Just one at first, and then a smattering more. Alarmingly, the number climbed to 18: jerking, flailing girls, swatting at their own faces, chins rhythmically jutting in uncontrollable spasms.

The drinking water in the town was tested (no dice) and conspiracy theories were formed. Months went by. The twitching continued with no satisfactory explanation. Eventually, two theories emerged. The first suggested that each victim was suffering from a mental condition called conversion disorder: their symptoms were very real, but there was no medical explanation for how the tics had cropped up in the first place.

The second is a little more eerie: It seemed possible that the girls were afflicted by a mass psychogenic illness (MPI) — that their non-medically explainable symptoms were spreading rapidly among the group, like a viral infection. Females in tight-knit circles are more likely to develop MPIs than males, making circles of girls — cheerleading squads, dance teams, cliques — particularly vulnerable. Another way to describe mass psychogenic illness: epidemic hysteria.
Image: Courtesy of The Fits.
I was thinking about the girls of LeRoy — of hysteria, of the way that young women fall in line with one another, sometimes powerlessly — while watching a new film from debut writer-director Anna Rose Holmer about the mysterious era of female adolescence. The Fits follows 11-year-old Toni, portrayed with nuance and grit by newcomer Royalty Hightower, on her journey from standoffish tomboy to member of an elite dance squad.

At the beginning of the film, we see with the dedicated hours Toni spends in the boxing gym alongside her older brother, learning complex footwork and combos, throwing hooks, jabs, and uppercuts until her body gives out for the day. Just down the hall from the boxing ring is a gymnasium, where the center's award-winning drill team practices. It might as well be a different world: Girls clad in spandex exercise gear practice complicated dance routines. Their hips aggressively roll, daringly and provocative, hinting at a budding power that has not quite yet risen to the surface. During breaks, these girls sashay to the doors of the boxing workout room, peek through the glass, and sometimes venturing inside.

Toni watches them, mesmerized, aware of the chasm between herself and these young women, as well as the girls her own age who stream by her on the way to dance practice, never registering her existence as she drags big bags of freshly laundered towels back to the boxing ring. But one afternoon, Toni finds herself in the gym alone — and she begins to dance, borrowing the moves that she's seen while secretly peering at rehearsals.

Not long after, she attends a drill team tryout. Toni makes friends with a few girls who are also new to the team — one named Beezy and another called Maia — and does her best to keep up with the challenging routines. She also begins to emulate other aspects of the team captains, their overt feminine displays. Toni pierces her ears, the small gold hearts in her lobes keeping her from getting back into the boxing ring again any time soon; she allows Maia to paint her nails in the hallway one afternoon. Small shifts, meaningful nonetheless.

And then, one day during practice, Legs, one of the team captains (played by Makyla Burnam), begins to convulse: She falls to the floor in the circle of girls, seizing and shaking, looking both fearsome and afraid. No one knows it yet, but this scene will play out again and again as other girls are inexplicably befallen by "fits," one after the next. As in LeRoy, parents and guardians will gather at the recreation center and demand to know what is going on with the girls and the cause of their affliction.
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Seizing becomes a rite of passage. Everyone else has to watch from the other side of the glass.

No one seems to have the answer. The drill team dances on, less a few of its key members. But
a certain kind of hysteria has taken hold. More girls have fits. Having gone through it becomes a selective sisterhood, a special club that only the formerly afflicted can belong to. As the rank of girls who have convulsed and collapsed grows, so does the desire to have one yourself — to be marked as special and suddenly changed. Seizing becomes a rite of passage. Everyone else has to watch from the other side of the glass.

Do you remember that moment when rounded cheeks receded and hips curved in a way they seemingly had not the day before? I do. I recall feeling left behind, desperate to gain ground, eager to give up climbing trees and forts in the park for a back-row spot on the cheerleading squad, even if I would never jump as high as the long-limbed captains who backflipped their way across the gym floor. A bittersweet truth: Becoming a woman means leaving a part of yourself behind so you can fall into formation of female experience and expectations. In some form or another, we are all beset by fits. And once we've been through one, we're never the same again.

By the end of the hour-and-eight-minute film, Toni has transformed. Twirling in a sequined costume, just one in a sea of other girls, she has the dance moves down. She's perfectly synced. If you didn't know who you were looking for, she would be tough to pick out of the crowd. Just like everyone else, Toni is smiling as she performs the choreography. Has she caught whatever was going around? You'll have to watch the film and make up your mind about that for yourself. But it's hard to tell if the smile plastered to her face is real or if it's a symptom of something very real that cannot quite be explained.

The Fits is screening in select theaters across the United States in summer 2016. Find out where you can see the film.
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This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called
Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
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