The constant worry for critics is that no matter how much you see, no matter how finely attuned your culture radar is, you could miss something special, especially movies that don’t have a huge promotional budget behind them. I confess this almost happened to me with Fast Color, which I didn’t see until the Tuesday after it opened.
Do not risk making the same mistake. See this before it exits theaters!
Fast Color is a superhero film like few others, possessing emotional depth, uninterested in violence, and full of images of rural America that remind me of celebrated directors such as Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise) and Terrence Malick (Badlands).
Except this unnamed part of America, which could easily be home to Superman’s human parents, is the purview of black women. They occupy a farmhouse that is enlivened by strains of Nina Simone singing “New World Coming.”
Fast Color is about a family blessed with a matrilineal gift: They’re able to take things apart and reassemble them. But the women — Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), her daughter Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) — are not engineers. What they do is transform objects down to their elemental states, turning bowls and cigarettes and even car repair tools from three-dimensional objects into piles of glittering, lively sand that resemble nebulae. And then, when it suits them, they reassemble them. There are rules, of course. The women can’t reassemble what’s already broken, only that which is whole.
Fast Color is a film about female power and those who seek to study and contain it. It doesn’t have the millions of dollars required to make the superhero tentpoles that DC and Marvel have thrust upon moviegoers. But I’d argue that it’s better for it — a limitation on the whizbang spectacle of constant special effects provides opportunity to appreciate stunning performances from Toussaint, Mbatha-Raw and Sidney.
Bo and Ruth are each running away from reality in one way or another. Although Bo possesses a family diary detailing how her maternal forebears tried to make sense of their power, Bo is wedded to a farmhouse in the hopes of keeping her granddaughter safe. She doesn’t offer the full story of the family’s past to her daughter or her granddaughter — the abilities she’s inherited have been more trouble than anything else. At least, they have for Ruth.
A weary Bo tells Ruth, “I’ve been seeing the colors for 52 years.” The magic just isn’t that big a deal to her anymore.
Ruth, on the other hand, is returning home after missing years of her daughter’s childhood. She’s haunted by powers that have gone wrong and are quieted only by substance abuse. The recovering addict is unable to conjure the light that comes so easily to her mother and daughter. Instead, Ruth is overcome by seizures that turn into earthquakes, which attract the attention of authorities and unscrupulous scientists. The film reaches its apex when those who want to study her and bottle her powers converge on the family farmhouse and, once again, Ruth must run.
Yes, the typical superhero movie tropes are there: individuals saddled with unwanted, potentially destructive powers who are sought after by Science Villains; a fading middle America in crisis and in desperate need of transformation; unexplained phenomena. It’s just that the approach is completely, blessedly different.
Written by Julia Hart and her husband, Jordan Horowitz (perhaps best known as the producer of La La Land who informed Oscar viewers that Moonlight had won best picture), Fast Color is the film that finally makes complete use of Mbatha-Raw’s spectacular talents. It combines the wonder and adventure of Mbatha-Raw’s tenure on Doctor Who with her gentle maternalism in A Wrinkle in Time and the gutsiness of the title character she played in Belle.
But in portraying a woman with superpowers she cannot control, Mbatha-Raw reaches something deeper, something spiritual, as each torturous earthquake forces her to lash herself to something solid while she rides out her seizures. That spirituality is heightened by cinematographer Michael Fimognari, who focuses on the exquisite desolation of a place deprived of water but not life. In Fast Color, mystery is in the earth, in the heavens and everything in between, and it’s up to Bo, Ruth and Lila to unlock them and maybe save the world.
Hart and Horowitz’s script left the door open for a sequel, and I hope it gets made. Fast Color is an exceptional, poetic ride that cries out for further exploration.