The Fits and other Films about Women, Girls, and Group Think
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If you haven't yet found the time to watch Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, now is the time (you'll find it streaming on Amazon Prime).
The Fits (2015)
I first got wind of this "dance" drama last year while researching for my monthly Women to Watch list. I put dance in scare quotes not because this isn't a film about dance (it absolutely is), but because it's about much more than an all girls dance team in Ohio. But perhaps then "drama" should be placed in that context, too, because The Fits could just as easily be mistaken for a horror movie; with the tone and anxiety of the best psychological thriller.
What's most special about this coming of age story is not what genre you choose to throw it in, but that it tells a story about girls, from a girl's perspective, written and directed and produced by women. As might be expected (or not - because this viewpoint is so rarely achieved), The Fits' take on a girl becoming herself is quite different from how it might be presented had a man told the story. Or had the story itself been filled with male characters (in this case, there are really only two, and they are background at best).
A Female Gaze
For those familiar with the male gaze, I think you'll find Anna Rose Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee rather deftly subvert it. The way Toni (Royalty Hightower) peers through windows, stands eavesdropping in locker rooms and by water fountains, makes her the immediate owner of this film's eyes, and therefore, its magic. What Toni sees is what we see - and sometimes in The Fits, what we're seeing is too strange, and too beautiful, to be fully believed.
Upon joining the dance team, members are suddenly afflicted with an illness. A seizure-like experience that is literally a fit spreads from girl to girl. Toni is inexplicably left out. She practices harder; helps the older girls; pierces her ears and lets them get infected. So many films depict female coming-of-age as a sexual awakening. The Fits is about girls' desires to be like each other - to emulate, idolize, and fit in. And unlike the typical Mean Girls depiction of that bonding (that it is nasty, dangerous, evil), it shows it as enviable. Safe. Beautiful.
Girls and The Perils of Group Think
It left me thinking of other films (not just Mean Girls, to which The Fits is diametrically opposed) that deal with women, girls, and the effects of group think. At first, I thought to call it a type of mass hysteria - and it is, to a degree - but what happens to the girls of The Fits isn't to be perceived as negative in any way. Mass hysteria has such a connotation that it doesn't quite fit. Interestingly, there are quite a few films, spanning many decades, that consider women and girls in this context.
Often horror films or mysteries, sometimes they portray it in a way that makes us more frightened of women, or asks us to see women's friendships as suspect. In other instances, it endears us to them, demonstrating the power women can have when they find themselves in each other. In all cases, I think, it causes us to consider how we perceive the gender as a whole.
A few of my favorites:
The Crucible (1996) - directed by Nicholas Hytner
You cannot possibly discuss women and group-think without referencing the Arthur Miller play about the Salem Witch trials. The 1996 film starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis was adapted for the screen by the playwright himself. Whether the girls are really witches or lying is of no matter - their hysteria presents a united front that directly threatens their patriarchal households.
The Falling (2014) - directed by Carol Morley
A strange, complicated little mystery that begins with the sudden death at an all girls school. In the weeks and months that follow, the girls experience fainting spells en-masse.
Thirteen (2003) - directed by Catherine Hardwicke
A movie that collectively scared every mother of a soon-to-be teenage girl half to death when it came out. Tracy, under the influence of a new girl friend, goes from honor student to sexually aggressive, drug-taking, and tongue pierced seemingly over night. It remains one of the most difficult to watch films I've ever encountered.
Heavenly Creatures (1994) - directed by Peter Jackson
Before The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson dealt almost exclusively in horror and magical realism, this being the latter (with a bit of the former mixed in). Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) become fast friends. So fast, and so entwined, that it becomes difficult and scary to pry them apart. They create a "fourth world" together, with the help of plasticine models and their vivid imaginations. It's some kind of love story, really.
Persona (1966) - directed by Ingmar Bergman
For me, this is the most important Bergman film (The Seventh Seal coming in a close second). Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a nurse, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) her patient. Throughout their time together, their personalities would seem to become totally intertwined, and their identities confused. At times, their union is unholy and stifling, other times beautiful and freeing. It's a masterwork in its own right, but its depiction of how we perceive women is startling and important.
The Moth Diaries (2011) - directed by Mary Harron
A surprising entry from the woman who brought American Psycho to the screen. Set at an all girls school (a running theme throughout these films, it seems), a new girl arrives (Lily Cole). She quickly becomes the object of attention for all of Rebecca's (Sarah Bolger) friends. Her uncanny magnetism and looks, combined with her ability to maybe walk through walls, keeps Rebecca on edge, and increasingly distant from the others.
Meanwhile, watch The Fits and tell me what you think.