Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 12 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4
At a community center on the west side of Cincinnati 11 year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is the only girl in the boxing gym. In a long opening shot we see her doing her sit-ups. Her supportive teenaged brother Jermain (Da’Sean Minor) and his friend Donté (Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.) act as her coach and trainer, holding up punching mitts or an end of a jumping rope so she can practice her punches and moves. They walk back and forth together to their apartment in a public project. We never see a mother or father, so we assume they are working, leaving their children in the relative safety of the center after school is out.
In another of the center’s gym a large group of girls practice dance moves. They range from girls even younger than Toni, ranging from those with stick figure bodies to full-breasted teenagers. All seem to be having a great time as Toni sneaks an occasional peek in on their sessions. Being the only girl boxer, we assume she must feel like an outsider. That this is the case we can assume because no other boy than her brother and his friend ever speaks to her. There are many close-ups of her face, always sober with no hint of a smile. This is especially the case in one sequence in which she, with her large gym bag over her shoulder, walks slowly down the hallway leading to her gym. There are shrieks and joyful shouts and laughter as a line of dancers run past her. They seem eager to get to their class, whereas, in stark contrast, she trudges along devoid of the other girls’ keen anticipation of the session together. Also the beauty of the dance moves stands in contrast to the bloodied nose of a boxer, and of another who spits out a frothy mix from his mouth.
Thus it is no surprise that soon we see Toni joining the girls. The dance troupe is known as The Lionesses, and their exuberance and dedication has won them some championship trophies. Toni, enrolled in the junior division called The Crabs, makes friends with the slightly younger Breezy (Alexis Noblest), the two joining fully in with the spirit of self expression encouraged by the adult leaders.
Toni, skillful in the boxing gym, is clumsy at first trying to learn the dance moves. Breezy laughingly tells her that she isn’t the worst. Toni watches and listens to the older girls. The gorgeous team captains, Legs (Makyla Burnam) and Karisma (Inayah Rodgers), apply makeup and discuss boys, with Toni close by peering at them, taking everything in. She applies her boxing discipline to bear , becoming more skillful in her dance moves as the days pass.
One day something mysterious, even eerie the music suggests, happens. One by one an older girl, beginning with Legs and Karisma, starts twitching, her body out of control, as in an epileptic fit. Each girl is rushed to a hospital for further observation. Fans of supernatural/horror films might thing of characters possessed by a demon. The worried adults tell the girls to drink only bottled water, that the center’s water is suspected of being polluted. (Shades of Flint, Michigan!) However, this proves not to be the case, deepening the mystery. The “fits,” as the girls call them, continue to overcome a dancer. It is always one of the older girls, until Breezy also is overcome. Then…
This is director/co-writer Anna Rose Holmer’s first film, but its subtlety an attention to the details of a young girl approaching puberty make us hope she will be but the first of many character study films. The characters are all black, so at first we expect this to be another one about race and poverty as obstacles to be overcome, but Ms. Holmer has other interests. The plot is simple, the POV almost entirely Toni’s, and the cause of the fits left to us to figure out. Some may want to go with a supernatural explanation of the fits. Others with a psychological interpretation of a girl wanting desperately to belong. The magic realism toward the end, involving Toni and the troupe dressed in their sparkling team costumes, might argue against including the film in the horror genre, despite intimations (due to the mood effective music by Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans) of this in earlier scenes. Whether a parable or allegory of feminine coming of age, or whatever, the film is a welcome relief from the usual summer action film.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July 2016 issue of VP.