Distilling big-picture matters — ecological devastation and femme-forward superheroics — into a human-scale story, the premise of director Julia Hart’s new film offers plenty to appreciate. Fast Color is stripped down to basics, with just a handful of characters, as it melds various genre tropes into a quiet dystopian tale with touches of sci-fi magic. Writing with her producer husband, Jordan Horowitz (La La Land), Hart has fashioned a tale of matriarchal inheritance, but one whose fierce message is undercut rather than deepened by its child’s-book clarity. The intriguing setup receives underpowered execution, the intended jolts landing all too softly.
Colors too neatly within the lines.
After its opening road-movie sequences, the drama settles into a tale of homecoming — an uneasy one, it turns out, for Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ruth, who has been living a troubled life on the lam, trying to escape not just the notice of others but the consequences of her own superhuman powers. Her story unfolds in an unspecified swath of the U.S. (the feature was shot in New Mexico) and is steeped in a vision of retro Americana — motels, diners, jukebox saloons — that’s meant to be haunting but feels art-directed to a hip-rustic T, however atmospherically shot by DP Michael Fimognari (The Haunting of Hill House). Amid the self-conscious array of artifacts, the world is dying after eight years of drought, in an unidentified year that resonates as late 20th century, or early in a 21st century that has regressed (there are landlines and answering machines but no mobile phones).
The story begins with Ruth’s desperate, pistol-packing, middle-of-the-night escape from some form of bondage. There’s mystery and tension in these early scenes, and Rob Simonsen’s expressive score signals crisis, yet even here the mildness that will ultimately prevail in Fast Color seeps into the proceedings. Soon after Ruth checks into a motel — where a jug of precious water costs almost as much as the room itself — her inconvenient power reveals itself. Whether it’s emotion or knowledge or something unnameable, it wells up in her as a seizure that causes a hyperlocal earthquake. The quake attracts the insidious concern of a government scientist, Bill (Christopher Denham), and sends a reluctant Ruth back to her childhood home, a remote farm where she can evade detection but not the hurt, accusing gazes of her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), and Lila (Saniyya Sidney, of TV’s The Passage), the young daughter she barely knows. With federal agents on Ruth’s trail, the forlorn local sheriff (David Strathairn), whose role in the saga is all too clearly telegraphed before it’s finally “revealed,” takes an active interest in her safety.
Bo and Lila have certain “abilities” — a term they use as if to place the mystical gifts in the same category as their knack for fixing mechanical things. By focusing their minds they can disintegrate household items into atomized swirls and then fuse them back together — a feat conjured in low-key f/x that maintain an organic, down-to-earth feel. On a more cosmic level, they “see the colors” of the title — a phenomenon that, to the screenplay’s credit, is never explained but suggests deep feelings of connection and creativity. These abilities have been secretly passed down through generations of the family’s women, and safeguarding them from exploitation or condemnation is the reason Bo and Lila live in such seclusion. Ruth’s power seems to be a destructive mutation of the family legacy, one that she quieted for years by self-medicating.
Bo is wary of Ruth’s professed recovery, and Lila is wary of her professed affection. The bonds and suspicions among the three are, for the most part, stated rather than affectingly dramatized. But when Ruth shares some cherished LPs with her daughter, tracing a lineage of female artistry and independence — Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and punker Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex — it’s the film’s best use of cultural nostalgia, and the moment when Mbatha-Raw’s performance feels most alive.
Still, the only truly strong moment in the drama belongs to Toussaint. When Bo engages in a face-off with a posse of armed men, the character is, in essence, stepping out of hiding to save a dying world, and the movie is revving its otherwise faint pulse. The rage and the joy that Fast Color tries to summon are rarely convincing, and its would-be heroine feels more like a pawn in the story than its engine. As a feminist fable, it has a number of potentially absorbing ingredients, but in many ways they feel as dematerialized as those household items that break into stardust under Bo and Lila’s spell.
Production companies: LD Entertainment, Original Headquarters
Distributor: Lionsgate/Codeblack Films
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, David Strathairn, Christopher Denham
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriters: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jordan Horowitz
Executive producers: Jennifer Monroe, Michael Glassman, Alison Semenza King
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Gae Buckley
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editor: Martin Pensa
Music: Rob Simonsen
VFX supervisor: Chris LeDoux
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (World Cinema Now)