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Stream This: Strange occurrence overcomes teen dancers in odd, kinetic 'The Fits'

Royalty Hightower as Toni in “The Fits”
Royalty Hightower as Toni in “The Fits” Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

In the beautifully observed, low-budget “The Fits,” something causes members of a teen dance troupe to erupt in seizure-like convulsions.

The drinking fountain at the community center where the girls rehearse is ruled out as a source of contagion, leaving two options: supernatural activity or “Crucible”-esque mass hysteria. The latter appears likelier, since the initial victims quickly return to the troupe’s lineup, showing no permanent damage.

Filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer never explicitly reveals the origin of the “fits,” but nonetheless explores hysteria as a more complex phenomenon than its sexist reputation implies. Holmer shot her film, streaming on Amazon Prime, in and around a Cincinnati rec center, and cast real-life dancers (from the Q-Kidz troupe) who epitomize strength and discipline. They include the film’s extraordinary star, Royalty Hightower, only 9 when cast as 11-year-old tomboy Toni.

Toni boxes at the center with her brother and watches, rapt, as the dancers practice kinetic routines nearby. Fascinated by the older girls’ confidence, she signs up, right before the convulsions start.

Through Hightower’s calm, watchful expression, the audience absorbs everything Toni witnesses. There’s the shock of seeing one girl per practice seize up, and less severe yet still-deflating sight of non-affected troupe members out-dancing Toni at every step. Hightower imparts Toni’s awkwardness, despite being a Q-Kidz dancer herself.

A gray-sweats-clad Toni will get her “Rocky” moment, on a bridge atop concrete steps she and her brother often run together. Dance moves come to Toni here in a way they did not before.

The scene’s music is eerie, not triumphant. Such hints at horror – at an outside force controlling the dancers – add intrigue and suit the film’s limited locations. The cast is so often in motion that one hardly notices the sameness of setting. For less populated scenes where it might be more noticeable, cinematographer Paul Yee chooses wide-angle shots that lend foreboding.

Toni’s dance skills on the bridge vanish back at the rec center, where her lack of ease stems only partly from the specter of becoming the next one to seize up. None of the older dancers bullies Toni, but their urgent femininity equals pressure for a youngster yet to develop physically. Toni outwardly responds by piercing her own ears, admiring how grown-up her studs look.

Is she also internalizing? As “The Fits” will show, adolescence is intense even without mean girls. For its expression to move from ear piercing to weirder rites of passage is not farfetched.

The Fits

Streaming on Amazon Prime

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