In Fast Color, it hasn’t rained in eight years and Earth suffers through a dry, quiet apocalypse. The ground is parched, deprived of the ages-old water cycle that let life flourish for eons. The movie’s characters are desperate for elemental connections, too, and one very special family in particular is on the verge of falling apart without them.
Like main character Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Fast Color hides its special abilities at first. Viewers meet Ruth on the run, checking into a nondescript motel after a long day’s drive. She unwinds rags from around her wrists, sluicing precious streams of cloudy water along painful wounds. She goes to sleep but soon starts shuddering and twitching in a seizure. The consequences of that seizure force her to get back on the road again, the latest chapter in a seemingly transient life.
Trust is a luxury that Ruth can’t afford. When a friendly stranger saves her from a ominous encounter with the cops, it turns out he’s an undercover government scientist who’s been tracking her. She escapes his attempt to ensnare her but can’t outrun the fact that her abilities are dangerous and out of control. So Ruth goes back to the only place that might be safe: her childhood home. But she gets a frosty reception after surprising her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) on the stoop of the farmhouse and struggles to bond with Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the daughter she left behind as an infant.
The family at the heart of Fast Color is deeply connected to the primal forces of the universe. Lila levitates a bowl and disintegrates it, making its particles dance impishly in the air. Her grandmother does the same with a cigarette. Nothing gets overly explicated in this movie, which lends it a mythopoetic quality. All we really need to know is that the connections between matter and energy appear as colors streaking through the world and Ruth’s fractured spirit is such that she can’t remember ever seeing them.
Fast Color feels full of soul, not because it’s centered on a multigenerational trio of black women but because of the emotional logic moving through it. Ruth’s mother and daughter can summon their abilities with more control. But Ruth has trauma in her past—centered on her relationship to both of them—that they don’t. Reckoning with that trauma, and the guilt and shame connected to it, proves to be the key to reconnecting Ruth with the cosmos’ larger elemental web.
These ingredients might make Fast Color sound lofty and vast, but it’s not. In fact, the movie works so well because it’s perfectly scaled and tuned, singing in a key it knows it can hit. The thematic structure revolves around intimacy and all of its principal cast members give heart-filling performances. Toussaint offers warm mother wit but wary protectiveness, Mbatha-Raw moves between hesitant vulnerability and ornery obstinance, and Sidney’s yearning for the world beyond her farm is so palpable it made me ache. Together, they conjure up those familiar quiet tensions that hang in the air after an argument and the infectious giggles that come with learning your personal history.
Director Julia Hart and her co-writer Jordan Horowitz deftly gesture at some of the expectations and genre conventions that some fans might harbor. In its folksy mood and rhythm, Fast Color feels like it’s channeling a bit of the 1970s Hulk TV show and Ruth pointedly tells Lila “we’re not superheroes” at one moment. But the drama of how they save each other is more thrilling than most third-act, CGI, cape-and-tights punch-ups. Fast Color communicates the weight of what it must feel like to have superpowers, as well as the soul-weariness that metahuman people might feel when things just aren’t right.
Tears streamed from my eyes for the last 15 minutes of Fast Color, like release and revelation, because Fast Color feels lyrical in a way that no superhero movie has. The superhero genre often gets talked about as modern-day mythology but films set in that space only flirt with actually feeling like myth. This movie feels like a fable of the soul, a story being told to help people marginalized by society’s institutions—black women, in particular—understand their own beauty and power. It’s a sort-of-superhero movie that, like M. Night Shmayalan’s Unbreakable, shows what the form can be. Hart has spun a fable about sacrifice, spiritual healing, and putting ghosts to rest; none of it comes across as corny or trite. Indeed, Ruth reaps a world of new possibilities when she does those things. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see how it broadens the palette of possibility for genre fiction movies.
Fast Color screened at SXSW 2018 this March and, as far as I know, does not yet have a distribution deal.