Film genres create opportunities. Even as Disney continues to dominate the global box office with its highly successful franchise of Marvel movies, independent filmmakers are able to utilize the success of the genre — or subgenre, or mode of cinema — to create movies that offer their own views of the world. This is what filmmaker Julia Hart has done with Fast Color, a film as much about family and intergenerational dynamics as dystopian futures and dormant superpowers. By adhering to familiar genre tropes, Hart has created a cinematic call-to-action for women to use their own powers to create a better world out of one that is broken. Oh, and she’s still managed to make a pretty great superhero origin story along the way.
Set in the near-future, Fast Color presents a world where the earth has gone dry. Water is no longer offered as a public utility by the government; those with enough money to buy water pay through the nose for whatever unfiltered liquid still remains. It is in this world that we meet Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman on the run because of her extraordinary powers. Ruth is prone to seizures, seizures that cause the very earth beneath her feet to shake and break apart; whenever these seizures occur, whatever building or city she happens to be in will be shaken apart by a powerful earthquake. This has drawn some unwanted attention from the wrong kind of government agencies, and for much of the film’s opening act, we watch as Ruth desperately tries to find her way back to the home of her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and estranged daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney).
With Bo and Lila, we are introduced to the nature of her family’s powers. Both women have the ability to break down objects on a molecular level; we first see the extent of Bo’s powers on the porch one night as she breaks down her cigarette into a swirling cloud of matter and colors. Furthermore, when Bo and Lila use their powers, they are treated to a kaleidoscope of colors around the objects they have affected, an afterimage triggered by their exertion of power. Despite the earthquakes she causes, Ruth has long-since lost the ability to manipulate matter and cannot see the colors. With Bo’s help, however, she hopes to learn how to control her seizures before the earthquakes she causes get any worse.
Despite the high-concept nature of Fast Color’s premise, much of the film is spent watching Bo and Ruth carefully put the pieces of their relationship back together. Mbatha-Raw is pitch-perfect as Ruth, a drifter put in the tough position of having to demand safe haven with her own family, but it is Toussaint who absolutely lights up the screen — pun intended — as the matriarch of the family. Despite everything, Bo still feels betrayed by Ruth’s decision to leave; the anger of her character is palpable, but the love and pain that it disguises gives way to some moments of true poignancy. The film may be set in the dried-out remains of our future — Hart and cinematographer Michael Fimognari find great beauty in their shots of the now-desolate earth — but with Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint at its center, Fast Color also manages to be one of the warmest and most empathetic genre films to date.
Given that Fast Color share similar themes of family and power, it seems inevitable that Fast Color will receive comparisons to Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special, but it’s worth noting how and where the two films differ. Unlike Midnight Special, the powers shown in Fast Color aren’t presented as unique; these powers have been handed down for generations, meticulously detailed in family journals and passed along from mother to daughter. Bo’s family have lived with these abilities for as long as she can remember, but they’ve kept them hidden for fear of retribution from those around them. At one point, Bo even expresses how mundane and routine her powers of transformation have become. The message here is anything but subtle: whereas most superhero movies challenge audiences to imagine what would happen if they were suddenly special, Fast Color shows what happens when a group of women who have always been special realize they shouldn’t be afraid of their powers.
For a film about mothers, then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fast Color’s message is one of rebirth. Bo is fond of telling her family that once something is broken, it stays broken, but the meaning behind this message will change throughout the course of the movie. In the beginning, we are meant to take it as a warning; by the time Ruth begins to gain control of her powers, it has become a challenge. The film’s most powerful shot is that of a group of men — the operatives sent by the government to bring Ruth in — standing aimlessly about, made helpless in the face of the limitless power of Ruth and her mother. The world doesn’t need to be saved; it needs to be reborn, and it needs women like Ruth and Lila leading the way.
Our review of Fast Color originally ran during SXSW 2018.