Director Anna Rose Holmer is no stranger to Portland. When I got her on the line recently to talk about her new film, “The Fits,” she mentioned her time in 2008 living here finishing her first film, a documentary called “Twelve Ways To Sunday,” and also working at The Northwest Film Center’s equipment room.
“The Fits” is a distinctively cinematic coming of age story about a pre-teen girl’s transition from tomboy boxer to competitive dancer, but really, describing the plot does the film no justice. “I’ve started to describe it more sparsely,” Holmer laughed, “But I describe it as genre-blending film that brings the audience into the singular perspective of an 11-year-old girl named Toni.” Toni is played by newcomer Royalty Hightower, an incredibly gifted young actress who carries most the film on her broad, youthful shoulders. Holmer and her small, mostly female crew set out to find an existing dance team that could fill the role of the one in the film. After discovering Q-Kidz, a group based in Cincinnati, on YouTube, the rest of the film fell into place, and they shot on location (Hightower was already a part of the team).
The film opens with Toni hanging with her brother and other older boys in a boxing gym, going through her rigorous exercise routine. One, two, three, she counts each sit up. Then it’s on to pullups. One, two. Typically, the camera looks either right at Tony, lingering on her no-nonsense stare and subtly expressive face, or through her eyes and ears. Soon enough, she’s drawn into another world that exists just down the hall at the community center where most the film is set. When some of the older girls start having unexplained fits, the film settles into a haunting parable about the precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood in general, but more specifically about a young girl’s experience as she starts her inevitable, if reluctant, path towards womanhood.
It is an effective character study, artful and honest in its ambitions. The film is subsumed in its protagonist’s specific point of view, so the brilliant music and sound design, the rigorous framing, and the delicate cinematography are all of a piece and perfectly attuned to that perspective. “The Fits” is sneakily powerful, and announces the arrival of a filmmaker brimming with cinematic bravado and real visual/aural ideas. That ambition and skill will pay off down the road. You can bet Holmer will blow our minds some day.
Here’s a few excerpts from our chat.
This is one of my favorite kinds of films. The way you completely submerge us into your lead character’s POV, I feel cinema can do that in a way that’s more visceral and thrilling than even a novel.
All of the craft decisions that we made were about amplifying that singular perspective. It is a very subjective experience, and I think it allows you to break with reality because you’re showing a subjective reality. We wanted to play around with what it felt like to be 11, and some of those things are in our memories. We couldn’t articulate whether these things really happened or not. I think that dreamy, kind of nostalgic quality starts to seep in to the film. In terms of references, one of the biggest was actually Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” I’m such a big fan of that film in general, it really shifted my perspective when I saw it. What he does so well is bring you into this space of the mind of a character. He’s really articulating cinema in a poetic way that we really loved, both as a visual reference and also in how you construct a narrative around a point of view.
Young filmmakers like yourself seem to understand the importance of sound in a film. It’s probably one of the cheapest special effects you can use.
We knew when we were writing the script we would write entire scenes and realize that so much of the action and plot was happening off screen. We knew sound would be a huge tool, both to convey perspective but also to clue the audience into shifts in tone. We actually did something I’ve never done on a film before: before we started shooting, our sound designer, location sound mixer, editor, producer and myself had a meeting about sound strategy. It was really incredible being able to think about those things from the beginning. A lot of the sound in the film is wild, captured on location with our cast. It was a gift to be able to strategize about sound in that way for this film.
Some people will no doubt be frustrated when much of the dialogue is obscured or unintelligible since we only see and hear what Tony does. Are you finding audiences receptive to these stylistic conceits in the film?
I think people start to relax into that once they realize there’s a set of rules. You have to be very consistent with your rules if you’re going to bring your audience into that space. One of the references we used in that regard was Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” where the women are not privy to these conversations and key decision making moments, they’re happening a couple hundred feet away, but you’re forced to be with the women and not quite hear what the men are talking about. I really like that tension. As an 11-year-old, adults are not coming around saying ‘here are all the answers.’ Even your peers, the older girls, they seem to know something and be talking about things you’re not part of. We wanted to play around with that tension and uncomfortability. In order to do that, we need to bring the audience into Toni’s space.
I like this film a lot, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched it: this filmmaker is going to blow us away when she gets a budget someday. Is that a problem in your eyes, or does it annoy you at all? Shouldn’t we be happy with the film at hand and judge accordingly before looking to the future?
No, I want to have a sustainable career as a director. I’ve done a lot of things on film sets, but I want to continue to direct. We made “The Fits” in a really special way. There were many limitations that we embraced. I love working in that space. That really pushed me as a first-time director to articulate what really needed to be onscreen, and to make a really lean and tight film, which ultimately are my favorite types of movies. There is a business side to filmmaking that we can’t ignore. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make relevant, exciting cinema. I do. It’s a balancing act. Certain stories demand certain tools. Some of those tools are budgetary. If you want to go into a certain world, or build a world from scratch, there’s money involved in that. I think you can be smart, frugal and also value your collaborators and their worth on set. I’m just excited to continue to work.
There aren’t enough working female directors. It’s getting better, slowly. Obviously this a big talking point of late. Since you’re ahead of what will hopefully be more consistent opportunities for other women to direct, do you ever feel pressure from that?
One of things that’s frustrating about that is I should only be representing my work as me. There’s this idea that if you mess up or fail or you don’t hit these box office numbers that you’re somehow reflecting on another female director’s ability to create strong content that succeeds at the box office. I don’t think that responsibility carries across outside of these fringe categories of filmmakers, either for women, filmmakers of color, or even the compounding fact of women of color in the director’s seat. There’s this idea that you’re representative of this large category and their capacity to do their do jobs. It’s just not true. It’s exciting that it’s this big conversation. What I can do is to continue to work. It’s not just females in the director’s chair. It’s female voices onscreen, camerawomen and crew. It’s systematic. It’s also not just a problem in the film industry. Ultimately that’s exciting because I think audiences want to see reflections of many types of people on film and I think we’re getting there.
(“The Fits” opens Friday, June 24, at the Living Room Theaters.)