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Fast Color is a marvelous entry in a dying genre: the small superhero movie

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The Gugu Mbatha-Raw-led film has more in common with Midnight Special than Marvel

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth in Fast Color.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth in Fast Color.
Jacob Yakob/Codeblack Films

The last several years have largely stamped out the small superhero movie, which makes the existence of Fast Color all the more remarkable. In a cultural landscape where city-destroying tussles and blockbusters dominate, it — as a film that takes place in the middle of nowhere, has minimal special effects, and stars three black women — is a remarkable anomaly.

Directed by Julia Hart (who co-wrote the film with Justin Horowitz), Fast Color feels of a piece with Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special and (the first part of) Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel without being beholden to either. It’s just that there’s a patience and emphasis upon emotion over exposition in all three films; the superpowers the characters possess are a means to the story’s end rather than being the reason for the film’s existence. All three are at their best when simple human perseverance and love are what make their supposed heroes extraordinary.

Set in a near future where America has been stricken by drought, Fast Color takes its time in establishing why Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is on the run, and why her seizures seem to trigger earthquakes. Even when she returns to the farmhouse she grew up in, where her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) is raising Ruth’s young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), details are only doled out as the characters need them and no sooner. Bo wouldn’t explain her reluctance to welcome Ruth back to Lila outright, and so she doesn’t, not until it’s absolutely necessary. Similarly, Ruth’s guilt prevents her from being up front with her daughter, who barely remembers her, about why she’d left her behind in the first place.

Lorraine Toussaint and Gugu Mbatha-Raw sit side-by-side in Fast Color.
Lorraine Toussaint and Gugu Mbatha-Raw sit side-by-side in Fast Color.
Image: Codeblack Films

The abilities that all three generations of women possess are almost secondary in that respect. Hart and Horowitz could easily have subbed in any other talent, or done away with them entirely; the focus of the film is in building a coherent picture of these women’s lives together, it just so happens that the swells and eddies in their emotions are given visual form by the phenomenon of “seeing the colors” that all three experience. It’s at attempt at giving form to something that’s formless, and the judiciousness with which the effect is used makes it all the more effective when it finally kicks in. (It’s the same principle that makes it so thrilling when Superman finally takes flight, dialed up to eleven.)

For the most part, these abilities manifest in small ways. Early on, Bo smokes a cigarette that she transforms easily into a swirling mass of ash and fire before restoring it to its original form, and Lila demonstrates the same talent by fixing a bowl that Ruth had once broken. It’s a talent that has destructive capabilities, but is never once used (or suggested) in that capacity. The awe it inspires is always in its power to restore.

Other figures — a kindly local sheriff (David Strathairn), an unctuous government-bankrolled scientist (Christopher Denham) — weave in and out of the narrative, but the focus remains small. The sense of grandeur that Fast Color possesses comes from just how rewardingly the story unfolds, as well as how gorgeous it is in every respect. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari evokes the very best road movies and westerns in the way he captures the vistas of the nameless swath of middle America in which the film takes place, and composer Rob Simonsen keeps the whole thing thrumming with a score that’s classical and modern in turns, evoking the work that David Wingo and Daft Punk did on Midnight Special and Tron: Legacy, respectively.

Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) confronts her reflection.
Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) confronts her reflection.
Codeblack Films

The themes that Hart is tackling — family, ostracism, and fulfilling one’s potential — are common in all superhero movies, yet they feel utterly fresh in Fast Color. It’s an effect the film achieves by defying almost everything expected of such a story: there’s no real villain, no globe-threatening stakes, no references to a larger cinematic universe, no post-credits stinger. This is a superhero movie reduced to its very basics, and it benefits from that simplicity.

The lack of frills allows a palpable sense of love to carry through — love between mother and daughter as well as grandmother and granddaughter. Even one of the bigger late-breaking (but well telegraphed) twists banks solely upon inter-character relationships to which supernatural abilities happen to be incidental, and plays softly and tenderly rather than demanding a superpowered pyrotechnic display.

The film’s relative slightness has its share of problems, too, mostly when it comes to instances of hackneyed dialogue and the faint sense that Hart is reaching for themes of empowerment and environmentalism that might be just a little too large. But Fast Color’s strengths are so compelling as to vastly outweigh them. Its bursts of color make the case for exploring superhero stories at all different levels, and with different leads.

Fast Color is out in select theaters now.