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‘The Fits’: A girl boxes, dances and witnesses something bizarre

Royalty Hightower stars in "The Fits." | Oscilloscope Laboratories

Toni is a boxer-in-training at the beginning of “The Fits,” Anna Rose Holmer’s fantastic first film that nearly defies description.

That is a very, very good thing. Genuine, honest, thrilling, it also heralds the debut of a terrific young actress, Royalty Hightower, who plays Toni. We meet Toni — we hear her before we see her, actually — doing sit-ups. She trains with her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), who works after school at the community center in Cincinnati’s West End, where they work out. She’s strong, determined, good at it.

Then one day, in another part of the center, Toni sees a dance team called the Lionesses practicing. They’re fierce, as they say — confident, fluid, yet almost martial in their movements. Toni is taken with them, and when Jermaine encourages her, she gives it a try.

It’s not an easy fit for her. The Crabs, as the younger dancers are somewhat dismissively called, don’t exude the confidence of the older girls; Toni, quiet and shy to begin with, isn’t sure if she’s cut out for this. She befriends Beezy (Alexis Neblett), and they play together while Toni helps Jermaine clean up. They also spy on the older girls as they gossip about the boys in the club.

Much of the film is devoted to Toni’s status as an outsider. While she works out hard, the boxing world is mostly male. She wants to fit in with the more female-centric world of the dance troupe, but struggles to balance the different skills involved. She still moves like a boxer, not a dancer. Yet she brings the same dogged determination to her new endeavor.

“The Fits” may sound at this point like any number of coming-of-age films you’ve seen.

It’s not, as the title suggests.

As Toni practices and begins to feel more comfortable on the dance floor, sudden attacks, with seizure-like “fits,” as the title suggests, overtake first the captains of the dance team, then spread to other girls. It’s scary but seems to pass fairly quickly.

What is it? Someone suggests tainted water, but no one’s buying that. It could be a metaphor for any number of rites of passage, physical, societal, biological, whatever. Maybe it’s some sort of shared mass hysteria. Holmer does not give easy answers. Instead, she gives us a portrait of a girl looking for her place in the world, and wondering what she must do to find it.

You honestly don’t know what to expect, and when the film is done, you’re not exactly sure what has happened. Again, Holmer isn’t going to tell you. It may sound frustrating. Instead, it is immensely satisfying.

Holmer’s technique and framing are outstanding. The film is only 72 minutes long, but she holds shots far longer than we’re used to, inviting us to feel what Toni feels (often Hightower stares into the camera during these shots, as if daring us to blink). Some shots, like Toni and Beezy playing, are adorable. Others, enhanced by the horror-film soundtrack, are chilling.

Things maybe worth noting: This is not the nicest section of town. Adults are largely absent, parents completely so. Everyone is looking for some kind of acceptance. Do these factors affect our experience of the movie? Perhaps. But the film also transcends such things, tapping into that universal adolescent fear of trying to fit in, and the willingness to do almost anything to make that happen.

★★★1⁄2

Oscilloscope presents a film directed by Anna Rose Holmer and written by Holmer, Lisa Kjerulff and Saela Davis. Running time: 72 minutes. No MPAA rating. Now showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center.