I had no idea what this film was about. That it was included in critics’ lists of notable works and that it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of nearly 100% are enough to make it worth watching for me. I knew that it was surprisingly short, at a little over an hour in running time, and is the feature film debut of an unknown director, Anna Rose Holmer, with unknown amateur performers.
Toni is a tomboy who hangs out in her local community center with her elder brother. He teaches her to box and to train and so she largely stays in the boys’ boxing gym. Nearby however the other girls are learning to dance and Toni finds herself drawn to them. With her brother’s encouragement, she joins the troupe and befriends the other younger girls there. Her dancing skills are awful at first but as she practices and perhaps due to her superior physical fitness, she quickly improves. At the same time as her bonds with the other girls strengthen, she seems to make a conscious attempt to be more feminine. Just as the troupe is about to enter a competition however, the girls are one by one struck by a strange malady that sends them into seizures. The phenomenon begins with the older girls but soon spreads to the younger ones. The authorities are at a loss as to what is causing it and it causes interruptions to the practice schedule. Yet it also causes those who have experienced it to bond together in a new way and Toni begins to feel excluded again.
I had a pretty hard time trying to decipher what the director meant to say and strangely enough the shortness of the film only exacerbated the problem. I found myself watching the clock and kept wondering how the director could fit in any interesting message in the little time remaining. Part of it is also that pretty much the entire cast is black and I found myself needing to analyze whether or not that was part of the point of the film. Eventually I realized that it really is just about a girl trying to find her place and fit in with the other girls. It’s not a bad theme to grapple with. It’s just this film understates its approach so much. I suppose the idea is that the fits are a sort of psychosocial phenomenon, that the girls voluntarily undergo it, even if it’s merely on a subconscious level, in order to signal their willingness to conform with the group as a whole. A key clue here is when Toni’s friend expresses her desire to experience it and later does, which initially causes Toni herself to be disdainful. Another clue is that the team captain behaves in a somewhat reticent manner before being the first person to succumb to it, as if she knew in advance that it was coming on.
Here in Malaysia we get reports of the occasional bouts of hysteria as well, almost always in girls-only schools and always attributed to supernatural causes. Naturally I’ve always been skeptical about these explanations. The alternative presented in this film seems reasonably plausible to me and is quite novel. Unfortunately this film explores the topic very shallowly, doing no more than touch the surface before it ends quite abruptly. It doesn’t even make the most efficient use of what little time it has, for example showing scenes of her bonding with her elder brother which isn’t the point of the film at all. This sense of maladroitness suffuses the whole film. It’s technically competent but doesn’t feel purposeful enough.
Overall while this is a worthy first effort, I feel that it’s the work of a director who has yet to find her footing. Admirable, not quite good enough yet to deserve the praise it has received so far.