Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits studies, quietly, the ineffable tribalism of girls. Girls who live on either side of the puberty barrier, who are either deciding the customs or preparing to follow. All of the girls attending after-school programming in the gray Cincinnati gymnasium are young, but some are younger. Toni is younger. Played by Royalty Hightower, the 11-year-old makes the brief commute from her brother's boxing gym, which reeked of amiable virility, to the drill room, where she shyly joins a heterogeneous female grid of dancers. Toni must practice harder than some to perfect the ordered dance the alpha teenagers teach, but she is a curiously sober child, and so she picks up not just the movements but also the elements of this culture, which include pierced ears and gossiping. Hightower's control of her face suggests that she is submerged in a trance of influence. Soon, she and her immediate companions become mystified by another condition, one overtaking their overseers: a cycle of convulsing and heavy breathing they've named "the fits." Perplexed adults think the cause is environmental, maybe water, maybe stress brought on by unwanted pregnancy. The wondering girls abandon the exercise of questioning entirely, and, rather, express curiosity about what it might feel like to be consumed by this choreography.
Toni's own fit comes at the end of the film: a slow, ecstatic dance in which she extends her arms and stretches her neck, contorts her formerly placid look into a blissfully strained smile. The other girls gawk. The adults are not there.
Women, or children, or children who could one day become women, coming together to make a series of ungovernable movements menaces the idea of social order. Holmer has said that 16th-century reports of "mass hysteria" informed her and her co-writers while they were writing The Fits. The history of hysteria, also a long and unsettled de facto monologue about the modern institution of social control, demonstrates how much fear anomalous movement can stoke and how little evidence we have that there is an actual normal. Children, more than any other group, are the most circumscribed by our movement orthodoxies. Their small strays are seen as simultaneously innocent and terroristic — quick omens of deviance to come.
Child actors have the adult world infused in them at an unnatural pace. Whether they should be fully immersed in the knowledge of a project is an ethical query tempered by an aesthetic one. How do you work with a category of artist whose very relationship to choice is circumscribed? Drew Barrymore's legal emancipation at the age of 15 — shortly after she published her aggressively deadpan addiction memoir, Little Girl Lost — made the case that child actors in the industry should be sequestered, if not banned from associating with adults altogether. "Child stars have to live out adult mythologies. They work for adults. They perform 'youth' as scripted by adults and they work adult hours to do so," writes Margo Jefferson in On Michael Jackson, her cultural analysis of one of our most harrowing examples. The predicament of child actors, who have to professionalize their own biological fugues, is hardly ever hidden in their faces.
This year, film and television featured a set of intuitive performances by children, movements that dramatized the adult gaze and emphasized the culture of childhood. In addition to The Fits, there was Moonlight, Stranger Things, and the steadily excellent acting on standard family sitcoms. On shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, young comedians were playful oracles predicting their parents' foibles. Marsai Martin, who plays Diane on Black-ish, excels as a misfit genius with alternative plans. "All children have a private culture put together from what they see and hear every day and from objects they turn into fetishes," writes Jefferson. While negotiating adult intrusion or the beguiling world of adolescence, the kids were communicating a knowledge of their own.
The first act of Barry Jenkins's Moonlight is named after a child. Alex Hibbert plays the mightily silent schoolboy who does not yell when a pack of aggressors chases him after school. He is known by the nickname Little, having not yet grown into his given name, Chiron. In poise, stoicism, and frank knowingness, Hibbert's performance makes you think of Hightower's. Each of the three actors who play stages in Chiron's life — Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevanté Rhodes — must balance quietude with a pulsing undercurrent of anxiety. Little is the most quiet, the least skittish. Hibbert's quixotic mannerisms, like his ability to tilt his head ever so slightly or to look down at disappointing adults from his short height, seem to strike unease in the grown-ups around him. Little doesn't always understand the vocabulary — "What's a faggot?" he asks Juan, played by Mahershala Ali — but his sense of moral calculus is developed and discriminating, like when he figures out that Juan is supplying their Liberty City neighborhood with the crack his mother does. It's disarming to know that Sanders, who plays Chiron in high school, hadn't spent much time with Hibbert during the filming. There's a bond of incomplete metamorphosis connecting the two performances, where Chiron has both grown and stagnated.
In one sense, Moonlight and The Fits complement each other, occupying the gendered poles of what films about black fraternity and sorority can look like. Still, they are both family dramas, observant of the hierarchies in the associations we're born into and those we choose. Jenkins and Holmer elected to cast their movies in the cities the stories were placed in: Miami and Cincinnati, respectively. Hightower was an actual dancer in the troupe Q-Kidz, the drill group that acts as the Lionesses in The Fits. The loosened, diffuse link between the real biographies of the children and the stories they were meant to tell heightened both believability and the feeling of voyeurism in the film. Black childhood is relentlessly policed, if allowed to flourish at all. That a fleet of young black children, some of whom aren't even principally actors, could exert some autonomy over the narrative feels crucial to this movie and overdue in indie film in general.
Black children get onscreen via other methods. The legacy of racial casting and black youth predates Hollywood by more than 50 years, going back to the 19th-century days of caravan minstrelsy. Black caricature leaned on lampooning not only the features but also the awkwardness of childhood locomotion. This century's category of state-sponsored snuff films shows the range of consequences black children can face for moving a certain way. This is an inevitable casting. Every November since Tamir Rice was killed by the police, the loop of him falling down circulates again. This year, videos of teachers berating black kids in school surfaced seemingly every other week. But some children cast themselves. Using platforms like the now-defunct Vine, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, young creators make their own realities.
The pliability of children has also always accommodated gender suffering. There's a rumor, for example, that Michael Jackson was a forced castrato. Regardless of chemicals or questionable surgery, the man sang like a boy into his fifties. The French bio-horror film Evolution, which had its American release this fall, spends an excruciating amount of time scanning the bodies of young boys. Nurses conduct reproductive experiments on them. Max Brebant's Nicolas is the only one to escape this island of torture, but not before enduring body trauma. This is not a "loss of innocence" folktale, however. Nicolas knew what was inevitable.
Stranger Things doesn't deal with the real issues kids face in cities. Here the problems are set in Spielbergian suburbia, where fantasy is a raw measure of what motivates children to commit bravery. The most beloved television show of 2016 concerned itself with '80s nostalgia. The ensemble cast, all of whom have become darlings, managed to revitalize even the hokiest of the show's tropes, including spontaneously talking radios, feminized telekinesis, and the era before helicopter parenting. Millie Bobby Brown, playing a stern, abused girl named Eleven whose compassion goes all the way to implied martyrdom, works an impressive range of emotions in a circumscribed space. It was difficult not to allegorize the plight of the runaway preadolescent who had been stripped of whatever power children are allowed, and who had instinctively resisted paternal perversion even without knowing that there was another option. Eleven seems like a microcosm of womanly birthright. Her final scene in the season, self-obliteration, forces viewers to remember that the character is, in fact, a child. Her belief in impulse and the greater good override selfishness. The scene is religious. Many martyred saints, especially the female ones, were just girls when they sacrificed their lives.
We agonized over our children in 2016. What they were seeing on the news and what they weren't seeing. Which ones were being targeted and which ones were protected. But the children on screens were plotting, wresting their narratives from the prejudices of adult memory and into the light of the present. The children were self-possessed, even as their notions of self were ephemeral. The children were consenting for themselves.