Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate releases the film on Friday, April 19.
The catchy spin on “Fast Color” is that it’s another black superhero movie, and a woman is the hero. Entering circulation just days after “Black Panther” crossed $1 billion at the box office. However, “Fast Color” is something far stranger and subtler than the MCU, providing an allegorical story about generations of black women who are forced to suppress their strengths, and the mounting courage they find in finally taking charge.
The second feature from director Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”) has a solemn, hypnotic quality, hovering between the profound ramifications of its intimate story and the hints of an otherworldly drama. Co-written with her husband and producer Jordan Horowitz, the movie presents a fresh variation on the superhero story, a near-future setting that may as well take place in the same dystopian landscape where “Logan” found its own wayward mutant hiding from the world. However, while the Wolverine gave up on his responsibilities long ago, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has yet to fully comprehend them.
A broken, lonely recovering drug addict on the lam from government forces, Ruth roams through sleepy truck stops and empty roads, with bandages on her hands pointing to a disturbing past. The nature of her talents only gradually comes into view, but she appears to turn material objects into dust with little more than a glance. That uncanny ability leads a government agent (Christopher Denham) to chase her down, giving her a ride before revealing her identity. Their tussle marks the only genuine action this slow-burn character study. Though the supernatural component of “Fast Color” turns on CGI trickery, the ensuing drama is more intimate in scope.
Following a taut, messy showdown, Ruth escapes the man’s clutches and finds her way on foot to her old family home, an isolated safe house where her mother Bo (a terrific Lorraine Toussaint) has been quietly raising Ruth’s daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), who never knew her mother in adolescence. The family’s tortured history, dormant for decades, reaches a tipping point as mothers and daughters must confront a destiny that has eluded them for ages. When a benevolent local sheriff (David Strathairn) takes in an interest in the family for reasons only clear later on, Ruth realizes the clock is ticking and does her part to heal a rift that destroyed her life.
Ultimately, “Fast Color” turns on abandonment issues, the specter of addiction, and racial prejudice. These potent themes imbue “Fast Color” with a gravitas that transcends its odd premise. Though the storytellers are white, there’s no sense that the drama has been sanitized by an outsider’s point of view — in part because Mbatha-Raw gives her best performance since “Beyond the Lights,” combing an air of melancholy with tough exterior. The movie sometimes struggles from assumed importance, but the screenplay doesn’t shy from approaching that concern through the perspective of young Lila, who can’t understand why the family’s powers must remain off the grid. (“Isn’t that narcissistic?” she asks, struggling to get the word right.)
While the special effects show the limitations of a modest budget, they benefit from the movie’s poetic, metaphorical qualities. Ruth struggles from debilitating seizures that cause the ground around her to quake, and while those abilities cause the all-white authorities to deem her a threat, they sharply illustrate an inner turmoil bubbling to the surface. And there’s no doubting the representational value of one scene in which gun-wielding white men have their weapons rendered useless by a powerful black woman. When clouds gather and bright, psychedelic visuals fill the sky, “Fast Color” becomes a fascinating poetic rumination on how the perception of one world coming to an end can lead to the start of a better one.
“Fast Color” often struggles to make its soapy family dynamic as involving as the ethereal nature of Ruth’s abilities, and the screenplay struggles to find words as sophisticated as its alienated world. Nevertheless, its somber, whispery tone suggests “No Country for Old Men” reframed from a long-neglected perspective. Set against staggering orange-hued desert landscapes and night scenes bathed in black and blue, the movie’s earnest ambitions yield a haunting quality that often rescues it from the pratfalls of underwritten exchanges.
“The world’s gonna die,” Ruth muses early on. “We knew this would happen.” But “Fast Color” overcomes that prognosis by charting a new beginning. Despite some obvious budgetary constraints and irksome plot holes, the movie strives to provide an alternative vision of the superhero narrative tied to the genuine experiences of people learning to come out of their shells and confront a new future for blackness, motherhood, and women taking charge. It’s not a superhero movie by any standard definition, but Ruth’s journey is a heroic one all the same.
“Fast Color” premiered in the Narrative Spotlight section of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.