This article originally appeared on VICE US
Twenty-nine years ago in Cincinnati's West End, a black neighborhood notoriously sawed in half following the construction of the I-71 highway, a resident named Marquicia Jones-Woods founded the Q-Kidz dance team. Called "Ms. Quicy" by generations of members, she wanted to find an outlet for the often-impoverished neighborhood children's talents at an age when they are especially vulnerable to the allure of the streets.
Based out of the Lincoln Community Center, the Q-Kidz walk down the hallways with intention and purpose. For these glorious few hours after school, they have agency over their lives, which are too-often governed by the difficulties associated with having few resources and coming of age amid crime.
Today, Ms. Quicy's idea has blossomed into a lasting institution, one that she and her identical 22-year-old twin daughters Mariah and Chariah devote most of their time and energy toward. "Ms. Quicy has taught me everything that I need to know, about drill, about dance, and about being myself—respecting myself as a young woman," said Makyla Burnam, team captain, in an interview she gave at Rooftop Films for the new film, The Fits, which features the troupe and is now in theaters.
The film's 11-year-old star, Royalty Hightower, was joined by 42 of her dance-team companions, most of whom appear in the remarkable new film from debut director Anna Rose Holmer. As Toni, a loner who gravitates from boxing toward dance, Hightower is as captivating as the film's elusive narrative, which begins just before a mysterious series of epileptic episodes begins to afflict members of the fictional Lionesses, played by members of the Q-Kidz.
"The fits is mass psychotronic illness, sometimes called hysteria," Holmer told me recently over coffee in Brooklyn. "That was the seed, exploring that idea, and that trend, through movement."
Already developing a "movement-based" coming-of-age script with her writing team, Holmer, who has produced work in the dance world for cinematographer and director Jody Lee Lipes (Ballet 422), discovered the Q-Kidz on YouTube after a long search for dance teams and immediately had a desire to make a film with them.
"I got in touch with Ms. Quicy after work at the [Cincinnati Metropolitan] Housing Authority," recalled Homer. "It was her last day of work—she had just gotten this congressional award—and she thought she was being punked because it was her last day at the office."
Holmer sees Hightower's character as a combination of herself and her closest collaborators, producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis, both of whom worked on the script with the 31-year-old NYU film graduate. "We're all kind of tomboys, with these formative relationship with our older brothers, still dealing with gender identity and the pressures of female spaces. That didn't go away because we grew up."
The young director, who workshopped the film in the Venice International Film Festival's prestigious Biennale College, stages the first shot in a way that lets us know we're in for an unusual experience. We see Toni doing sit-ups in a boxing gym, her body entering and exiting the frame at a distinctive rhythm, her eyes breaking the fourth wall. That intimacy with the audience doesn't abate over the course of the film's slender 72-minute runtime. As Toni grows into an increasingly significant member of the Lionesses, she remains at an emotional remove. While burgeoning teenage sexuality and a Flint-esque poisoning crisis loom as potential avenues for the film's exploration, they remain sidelined by Holmer's interest in the young athlete's process, both as a boxer and a dancer.
"You're in this playful but serious place. Sports are taken very seriously. I love that. There's truth in that," Holmer said. "That's really what the rec center represents."
The movie skates a delicate line between a neorealist approach of using non-professional performers working in their actual environments and a heightened, polished aesthetic of long, steady tracking shots. The confident dolly moves and Steadicam shots, built for maximum glide, are combined with a remarkably dexterous sound design that holds us in Toni's experience at ground level but also cues us to the emotional contours of her journey, from ominous to genuinely uplifting.
In the tradition of much American independent cinema, the narrative remains flat, without stakes-heightening plot points. But the film's constant sense of grandeur stymies any wish for dutiful, escalatory plotting. That the film succeeds in telling a child's story on a shoestring budget without ever feeling manipulative or heavy-handed is a testament to Holmer's touch and Hightower's screen-stealing performance.
"I'm just glad we got to make Royalty Hightower's first film," Holmer told me. In the case of this child actress with magnetism to burn, filmmakers would do well to craft roles that speak the depths of Hightower's multiple gifts.
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The Fits is now playing in theatres.