meet the young filmmaker tackling gender performance and binary ways of thinking

Expectations get floored in Anna Rose Holmer’s visually impressive debut 'The Fits.'

by Colin Crummy
01 March 2017, 2:50pm

In The Fits, 11-year-old Toni is a boxer, the only girl in school to do practice the sport. But she is also drawn to the all-female space of the dancing troupe. So she finds herself having to negotiate her identity, reluctant to just be boxer or dancer. To coin a phrase, she wants to float like a dancer and sting like a boxer — to pirouette and left hook her way out of the restrictive gender binary.

The film, which debuted at Sundance last year and introduced actress Royalty Hightower as a talent to watch, is an impressive debut feature from Anna Rose Holmer that eloquently visualizes the boxes we put ourselves in and the spaces we could experience if we are willing to express ourselves.

Although not a dance film in the strictest of senses, The Fits uses bodies in motion — whether boxing, dancing, or simply negotiating space with others — to portray that strict gender divide in action. We caught up with Holmer, the film's writer and director, to talk about some of the thinking behind the work.

The film sets two distinct spaces up, one for the boys and one for the girls. It's a strict reading of gender roles. Why start there?
We tried to set up this gender dichotomy as a false binary. It's this childish view of what gender and gender performance means. You have these two rooms and you are in one or in the other. If you're in this room, this is how you move and if you're in the other, this is how you move. Toni is the only being who is being passed between the two. But those spaces start to collapse on each other.

The film does a great job of conveying this visually, especially in color codes for both genders. Can you explain some of the thinking?
We wanted to control palette in a pretty extreme way. The wardrobe was about control and making the binary space between the masculine and feminine space a little more visible. As those lines blur throughout the film, what does that mean?

My expectations were that the dance space was not somewhere Toni would want to be in or fit into. Without too much spoilers, why did you decide it wouldn't be simply that tomboy story?
For us, as Toni is blossoming as a dancer and her realized self, she is not discarding her original box or masculine identity. She is embracing and incorporating it in her identity, she is the sum of all parts. There is this fear or dread of conformity but the film is a celebration of her finding her wholeness in the complexity, her specific nuanced gender performance.

The other expectation is that it will turn into a sexual awakening story but it is not that either.
My co-writers, editor, and producer — who are both women — we wanted to tell a story about a girl which was not tied to sexual awakening. In female coming of age stories, sexual awakening is conflated with self awakening. I think that's not true. We, as women, can be complex individuals even before the sexual gaze and sexual identity enters into it. We were very intentionally trying to place this in a 11-year-old girl's body.

What were you like at that age?
One of the things I share with my co-writers is that we were almost self-isolating as teenagers. At Toni's age, 11, I didn't quite have my people yet. I grew up in a very small town. At 12 I started working on a very small farm and I found ways to escape and that was through music and theatre and art. That's one of the things that's great about the film, just how powerful dance can be as a way to — dance or sports or coming together as a group — tackle these big questions you have when everything seems to be shifting.

You want to continue working in this way, exploring ideas through dance or bodies in motion. What's next?
We're examining what an ideal athletic female form is and how our identities are tied to our bodies and who has the right to make decisions about those bodies. It's a continuation of the theme. I will continue to make films that are about bodies in motion. I love the physical element of bodies in motion in cinema. For me it's another tool that allows us to express these very complex thoughts about what it means to be human.

What record would make you get up and dance?
I've been listening to a lot of Solange this year. Prince and Bowie last year were just a reminder the influence those two individuals had and the power of them as artists. But I'll get down to anything.

The Fits is in cinemas now.


Text Colin Crummy

the fits
Anna Rose Holmer