PHOTO: COURTESY OF OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES
The first line of this story could be “Once upon a time.”
The Fits, the low-budget indie movie shot and set in Cincinnati and released earlier this year, has turned out to be quite a modern fairy tale. And it’s now being treated like royalty.
Director Anna Rose Holmer, working with co-writers Lisa Kjerulff and Saela Davis, came to Cincinnati with a story about a quiet girl training in boxing at a West End gym but curious about the world of an urban dance team practicing nearby. For their lead character, they chose Royalty Hightower, an 11-year-old Cincinnati girl with captivating stage presence.
As the story veers into unexpected territory, once the team members experience unexplained fainting spells and dangerously violent fits, the movie becomes increasingly strange but consistently compelling. Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, it found its way into theaters nationally and has prompted ongoing conversation and praise. That can be seen in the way it has garnered end-of-2016 recognition. Consider these:
The National Board of Review named The Fits one of the ten best independent films of 2016 and chose Hightower as its Female Breakthrough Performer for 2016. She received nominations in the same category from the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Black Reel Awards and the Gotham Independent Film Awards.
The prestigious Independent Spirit Awards has nominated Holmer for a Someone to Watch prize and also has made The Fits a finalist in its Best First Feature category.
In the 2016 Critics Poll conducted by IndieWire, the influential online chronicle of the independent film world, David Sterritt named The Fits his fifth-favorite movie of the year and Holmer his fourth-favorite director, and Hightower placed third on his Best Actress list. He is head of the National Society of Film Critics and editor-in-chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video.
In a December New York Times feature on “The Year’s Most Captivating Film Performances,” critic Wesley Morris singled out Hightower as one of his choices. “ . . . Walking into The Fits, I really didn’t know where that little girl with the intoxicating studiousness was going to take me,” he said. “I just knew I’d follow her wherever that turned out to be.”
Holmer, a New Yorker with a background in documentaries, brought the movie here after developing its story for the Venice Biennale Cinema College. After a long search for a suitable dance team, she discovered Q-Kidz, a West End dance group, and arranged to shoot here.
She dreamed of telling a moving tale of wonder about the power of dance and a form of group hysteria. The first step on this grand quest was to find a setting. When we spoke by phone, a few days before Christmas, she provided me with a bit of the backstory.
“We didn’t write The Fits to take place in Cincinnati,” she explained. “This is a grant-supported independent film, so we were looking to collaborate with a dance team and highlight those kinds of real team connections on screen. I saw a clip of the Q-Kidz dance team on YouTube and instantaneously fell in love with them and their energy, the dance form of drill.”
She continued: “I came to Cincinnati before we had officially received the grant and the moment I walked into this community center on Linn Street, I felt like this was our home. This was the place this movie needed to be made.”
Her account certainly merges with the fantasy of discovery found in fairy tales. She has become discovered by the film world by coming to Cincinnati. And the city, after standing in for old New York in recent productions (Carol and Miles Ahead), plays itself, its raw and natural beauty taking center stage.
During the summer, following the release of the film, I found myself on a family vacation in Portland, Ore., where I wandered past the indie theater, The Living Room, with The Fits prominently displayed on its marquee. I immediately snapped a quick photo and posted it to Twitter. I shared this with Holmer, who acknowledged that the film’s social media profile proudly lists its hometowns as Brooklyn and Cincinnati.
But the city is not the only native star on display. There, too, is Hightower playing Toni.lHolmer had some ideas about what made her performance so memorable. She’s a different kind of young person than is usually seen in the movies.
“There aren’t the external antagonists of the classic coming-of-age story, with people telling her she’s no good or ugly or not doing it right,” Holmer said. “She’s self-isolating. She’s holding herself back, in a way.”
I was able to connect with Cincinnati native and newbie actress Hightower as well, during that pre-holiday chat, and I asked her what it was like to play Toni.
“We’re more opposites,” she began. “I don’t like boxing. I love dancing way more than I like boxing, because I’ve been doing it since I was six. I have a lot of experience with dancing, so it was hard to act like I couldn’t dance. Plus, I stand out more than Toni.”
Hightower’s ability to stand out is apparent, and she is bringing Cincinnati along as her plus-one on this amazing journey.
With each nomination and win, Cincinnati gets the opportunity to share in the spotlight. We would be wise to keep an eye on Holmer and Hightower. In separate exchanges, each of them spoke of their desire to reunite somewhere down the road. And even over the phone, Hightower has a youthful exuberance and wisdom, but not necessarily in that wise-beyond-her-years way, apparent in some young performers.
She’s the breakthrough Cincinnatian of 2016.