Move over, Captain Marvel, there’s a new female superhero in town. Fast Color doesn’t have the budget, the FX bells-and-whistles or even the inclination to take on the Brie Larson MCU blockbuster. But the tightly-focused origin story of Ruth, played with ferocity and feeling by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is still one hell of a heroic odyssey.
The world is suffering from the parched effects of eight years of drought when Ruth, who’s been running away from the earth-quaking powers she never wanted, returns home to her remote family farm. Her mother, Bo (the indelibly intense Lorraine Toussaint), takes her in. And local sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn) offers what protection he can from Bill (Christopher Denham), the creepy government Dr. Frankenstein on her tail. He wants to harness Ruth’s powers, perform experiments … and worse. But Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the young daughter that Ruth abandoned to her mother’s care, will require her most careful attention.
These are the main characters in this dystopian drama that never makes good on the explosions of action and character it promises. But its low-key, minimalist approach offers rich rewards for the patient. Director Julia Hart, whose underseen and underrated Miss Stevens should go immediately on your must-watch list, wrote the script with her producer husband Jordan Horowitz (La La Land). And they mostly restrict events to the area of the farmhouse. That’s where we learn that Lila and her grandmother can focus on a color, reduce an object to particles and then reconstruct it at will.
Ruth can’t see colors but she has abilities that are frustratingly out of her control. In a prelude, Ruth straps herself down in a motel bed, unable to control the destructive, internal force that can leave human wreckage in its wake. Ruth has been using drugs to quiet her seizures. They’re not always effective. We learn that one of her spells nearly killed her daughter. For Bill and the feds, Ruth’s personal problems pale against her potential to save a planet without rain in which even a small bottle of water could cost 12 bucks.
In this feminist parable, Hart wants to show how the black women in this family must hide their supernatural strengths to exist in an uncomprehending world. “Isn’t that narcissistic?” Lila asks about keeping the family magic to itself. The fear and anger that result from turning away from their true selves takes a toll on all three women. Unpacking the themes in this complex allegory puts a strain on Hart and on audiences as well. The film churns with issues of race, addiction and abandonment that it never fully tackles. At its best, though, Fast Color digs deep beneath the paranormal glitz on its surface to examine challenges to female empowerment and to hurl us into a troubled world that looks very much like our own.