“Fast Color” is a movie told in visual clues and whispers. A mysterious voiceover that sets the stage for this dystopian near future, followed by an unexplained flashback here, another seemingly random image there. When all the puzzle-like pieces come together, the movie’s characters, story, score and emotions soar. The pace of that progress may feel slow, but things never get too quiet. It’s a movie with a racing pulse, and you can feel its heart in every frame.
Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a woman on the run from a shadowy group hunting her for her extraordinary powers. As the pieces of Ruth’s life begin fit into place, the stakes become higher and more emotionally involving for the audience. I hesitate to say much more, because part of this movie’s appeal is watching the unexplained flashes of Ruth’s past make sense.
Her powers, over which she has no control of at the start of the movie, can cause an earthquake and give her seizures. She can feel them coming, possibly warn those around her, and tie herself to her bed to avoid hurting herself, but there’s little else she can do. It’s not referred to as an illness in the movie, but the parallels are easy to spot, especially when it comes to how these events affected her relationship with her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint). Clearly, she cares about her but is frustrated by her inability to help her daughter. In turn, Ruth sometimes rejects her mother’s care to prove her independence.
As their conversations shift from worrying to angry, we’re watching old emotional wounds tear open without quite understanding everything that the two characters have gone through. Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint’s shared scenes are so compelling, they are both frightening and captivating as we know that Ruth has run off once before and could do so again. In between these tense standoffs is a third presence, a little girl named Lila (Saniyya Sidney), who brings out the love in these two women. She is a precocious breath of fresh air, not yet hurt by the world, and still full of the possibilities of what the future might bring for the next generation.
Along with the introspective look at illness, “Fast Color” also provides a nuanced examination of addiction. To cope with the stress of feeling out-of-control and inadequate, Ruth acts out and engages in risky behavior as a way to self-medicate. Mbatha-Raw gives a standout performance, embodying her character’s conflicting needs both to seek comfort and to protect those she loves. At first, Ruth looks like the stoic heroine of a sci-fi thriller, wearing an oversized coat, dusty shoes and a look of quiet determination to survive. As the movie follows her, we see more sides to her characters, like her painful memories of regret and the fear that her powers may hurt someone she loves. In scenes at a gas station and abandoned motel, she looks weary of running so much but steady in her resolve to keep pushing forward. Other movies might have picked up the story when Ruth hit rock bottom, but “Fast Color” is a movie about recovery, healing and redemption — with the occasional tense chase sequence.
The second feature from director and co-writer Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”) has much to say about family, inherited trauma, sickness and motherhood. Hart, who co-wrote the movie with her husband Jordan Horowitz (the “La La Land” producer who called the “Moonlight” team back to the stage on the night of the Oscars mix-up) only sparsely references other movies in her stripped-down sci-fi thriller. There’s a bit of a scrappy “Mad Max” vibe found in Hart’s version of a near-dystopian future where the rain no longer falls, and humanity pays exorbitant amounts for gallons of water. The color of the movie’s titles look inspired by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and just like that movie, its effects pack an emotional kick after the plot’s buildup.
Softer shades of color bleed through the movie as well; cinematographer Michael Fimognari (Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”) never oversaturate the scenes with them, but merely compliments them. When Ruth is home, there are calming blue and green tones around her, enhancing the feeling of safety she feels. In the film’s more active moments, Rob Simonsen’s bopping score emphasizes the feeling of Ruth running from danger with a futuristic synth sound.
Although I quite enjoyed Ruth’s journey as Hart set it up, I recognize that its fragmented nature may not work for everyone. Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint give great performances, but not everyone is at their level of acting, and this is most apparent in the cliché scenes featuring the men tracking down Ruth. Fortunately, nothing felt so egregious as to be too distracting from the movie’s core story about three generations of black women and how they deal with a world that always seems to want to hurt them.
In a sense, “Fast Color” is like an indie superhero origin story, but it feels so much more profound than that, like a whispered blessing from one generation to the next: “Go tear apart the sky,” do what our mothers could never have imagined for us.