Written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz
Directed by Julia Hart
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney
MPAA rating: PG-13 for a scene of violence and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
by Hunter Bush
Fast Color is the kind of movie I've been waiting to see made for a while, and one we're likely to see more of in coming years. It uses the big money buzz of superhero movies, but bucks all the spandex and villain clichés to instead make a smaller, more intimate feeling movie in a genre generally unrepresented when superhuman abilities are in play. One about family and one focused specifically on the relationships between mothers and daughters, but yes, also there are superpowers.
Fast Color is about three generations from the same family where all the women as far back as anyone can recall have been born with the ability to "take apart" objects, deconstructing them down to their composite materials (visualized as swirling colorful dust) and reconstructing them as if nothing had happened. Special abilities like these have become more and more commonplace in the last decade-plus, but make no mistake, were Fast Color released in the 90's it would sit comfortably on a rental shelf alongside Powder, Practical Magic, and Phenomenon.
(Sidebar: Wow, there were a lot of supernatural talent movies that started with P in the 90's hunh?)
Our main character is Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who, unlike her mother Bo and daughter Lila (Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney respectively), never learned to control her powers and left the family farm (and her then-infant daughter) out of a mixture of frustration, embarrassment and a desire to keep those she loved safe. Now, about a decade later, she returns to reconnect and attempt to finally master her abilities.
But don't come to Fast Color expecting training montages and acrobatics, this just isn't that movie. There's only one real fight scene which I'd categorize more as a struggle than a fight. There are scenes with tension and the threat of violence, but not anything I'd call a full-on action scene. This is not a quibble in any way, it's a fact. The world of Fast Color is in the middle of a very soft dystopia where water has become extremely scarce, another aspect downplayed to serve more as world-building than spectacle because that spectacle would distract from writer / director Julia Hart's (co-writing with Jordan Horowitz) focus on Ruth's relationships with her family. That is what is made most important in the script. Not that the world is drying up, or that there are people out looking for Ruth, but that she has to repair the bridges she burned all those years ago and begin to have a relationship with her own daughter.
This approach is likely to put some folks off, depending on how much of a "traditional" superpower-y movie the audience is expecting. Fast Color is deliberately paced, allowing for real tension and expectation to build. You hope Ruth can learn to control her powers not because she's the key to stopping some extinction level threat coming to Earth or anything, but because when she loses control she puts herself and her family in danger. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance makes that matter to the audience because she so easily and clearly conveys Ruth as a character. Ruth is strong and competent but too exhausted from being on her own for so long to continue the way she's been, so she has to swallow her pride and go back to get help from her mom, Bo. Lorraine Toussaint's performance was like a strong hug through the whole film. She makes Bo feel rock solid and sagacious while showing us that Bo does not indeed know everything. Toussaint performed everything with such gravitas; I loved her. I also really enjoyed Saniyya Sidney's performance as Lila. If you've read some of my other writings, you might know I have a high standard for child actors and Sidney did an amazing job with a character that could easily have come off as overly precocious. I liked every one of the main performances in Fast Color because, superhuman powers aside, they felt like real people with real damage.
That is what I meant at the top when I said Fast Color was the kind of movie I'd been waiting a while for: a movie with special powers in it that isn't solely about them. Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz have made a movie that uses the conceit of these abilities and this soft post-apocalyptic world as backdrop; wallpaper. A lot of comic books feature people with some kind of powers or another, but they still manage to tell all kinds of stories, not just Hero vs. Villain (Dawn of Justice) rock-em-sock-em ones: horror stories, thrillers, espionage, high drama, romance, swashbuckling and on and on. The point we are currently at regarding superhero cinema all but demands that the movies start really embracing the concept of "superpowers" as a storytelling tool and not as the story itself. Fast Color is an excellent step in that direction.
My favorite aspect of the film, however, was its generational viewpoint on these special abilities. Bo as the oldest generation represented, has a sort of wise-woman-of-the-woods / benevolent witch vibe about her, giving her the feel of an unknown character from a folk tale. Ruth however, filled with angst over not being able to control her powers, makes a lot of poor choices and things for her get fairly dark which perfectly encapsulates the "grittier", "more realistic" approach to comic books popularized in the 90's. Finally, Lila repeatedly asks Big Picture questions: Wouldn't their powers be better used trying to help other people rather than only using them in secret? It's a more socially conscious viewpoint that reflects the best of what could be done with these gifts, especially in a world so desperately in need of the help. None of these "viewpoints" are expressly stated in Fast Color, but come through in the characterizations and performances.
Fast Color is a movie that touches on a lot of emotional themes, but does it in a realistic, grounded way, with characters who feel real despite their otherwise fantastical situation. In that aspect, it reminded me of the Amblin films a lot more authentically than all the other Amblin-alikes that have been coming out in recent years. Yes there are superpowers and the filmmakers have obviously at least considered the possibility of a franchise, but the overall is wholly unlike any other super people flick you're likely to catch in theaters this year. I sincerely hope other films take chances like this one. Plus it has a killer X-Ray Spex “Germ Free Adolescents” needle drop.