Filmmaker Julia Hart has a knack for casting. Three years ago at SXSW, I got to see her directorial debut, Miss Stevens, a surprisingly poignant road comedy about a high school teacher who chaperones her students to a drama competition, starring the impeccable Lily Rabe in the title role and a then-little-known Timothée Chalamet as one of her students. Hart co-wrote that film with her husband, Jordan Horowitz (best known as a producer on the likes of La La Land), and the two have teamed up again for Fast Color, a female-centric origin story that flips the idea of superheroes on its proverbial head.
Here, the casting again stands out, with the divine Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth, a woman on the run for reasons that aren’t exactly clear as the film begins. In the middle of the desert during a drought, she finds her way to a roadside motel, getting to her room with just enough time to clean up (with water she had to pay for by the jug at check-in) before a seizure hits that sends everything within shouting distance into an inexplicable earthquake. At breakfast the next day, a fellow diner (Christopher Denham) saves her from a brush with the law, but it’s not long before it’s clear he doesn’t have her best interests in mind, either.
Through all of this, exactly what is going on with Ruth is frustratingly foggy; thankfully, like what we soon learn makes Ruth quite exceptional, the pieces begin to come together beautifully. With no where left to go, she’s headed home, where her mother Bo (more strong casting in Lorraine Toussant) might be able to help as Ruth’s life crumbles around her. Bo, of course, knows exactly what’s going on with Ruth, and even as she’s frustrated by her daughter’s recklessness, she does what any mother would do: she takes her in. But Bo is busy raising Lila (Saniyya Sidney, Fences), and everyone in town is preoccupied with getting by in the drought that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
From there, Hart and Horowitz craft a wholly original, wildly engaging story of discovery and forgiveness, as Ruth, Bo and Lila get reacquainted with each other, their family legacy and just what power they wield over the world around them. No small accomplishment. Each character is on her own journey to figure out how to live with her gifts, and it’s our pleasure to join them for it. The fact that the authorities are on Ruth’s trail, intent on poking and prodding the magic out of her, only raises the stakes of it all, making it all the more imperative that she finds herself and her purpose before it’s too late.
The way it’s all realized is one of the most enjoyable parts of Fast Color, as the desolation of the drought and the isolation of Bo’s farmhouse somehow make the characters pop on screen even more, their very existence an act of resistance. And as Ruth becomes more at peace with her gift and more confident in how to control it, ordinary moments become revelatory. There’s a particularly fantastic moment as she’s driving, realizing just what she’s capable of, that strikes a vibrant, inspiring note worth celebrating. Colors become as much a character as any of the actors, and the fictional world Hart creates is meticulously conceived.
Fast Color has been labeled a “superhero origin story” in much of its marketing materials. And sure, there’s a touch of the supernatural threaded throughout. But that characterization is much to narrow for what the film encompasses. See it as a modern fable about self discovery and having the courage to live the life one is destined to. See it as a family drama about three generations of women who learn from, depend on and live for each other. See it as a cautionary tale about an over-reaching government that threatens to stamp out or exploit that which makes us different. See it however you’d like. Just see it.