Eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends her free time at the community center, where her older brother leads her through boxing training. (The film was shot at the Lincoln Community Center, in Cincinnati’s West End.) Then Toni becomes entranced by a squad of drill dancers practicing down the hall, and joins the team of teenage girls. Soon after, members of the dance crew suffer “fits” — episodes of shaking and fainting — which become the source of speculation among the girls: Is it the center’s water, the intensity of the dancing, or some sort of psychosomatic viral trend (one girl posits it might be a “boyfriend disease”). Meanwhile, Toni struggles to find a balance between the easy athletic-oriented camaraderie of the boys and the fraught but intense relationships of the girls; she flirts with “girl” things like ear piercings and giggling episodes of dress-up.
The film — just 70 minutes — is provocative and even haunting in its presentation. There is very little dialogue — the first third of the film has almost none — and like the old Peanuts TV cartoons, there are virtually no adults (and then we only hear their muted voices). The building — and its empty halls and rooms which Toni roams — is as much a character: Which room holds the future? And Holmer films Toni engaged in trance-like behaviors which speak to those disorienting years between childhood and adolescence.
The film will be too oblique and open-ended for those who like tales to be direct and tidy; the metaphor of the fits themselves is fairly fluid, though I read them easily enough as markers of both transition and a desire to belong. There is bittersweetness and joy in Toni’s journey, navigating uneasily from Team Boy to Team Girl. Life in Team Girl has its terrible costs and compromises for a bright self-assured tomboy, but also offers meaningful rewards like friendship and shared emotional experiences.