A new “scientific” study alleges that you can drink 25 cups of coffee a day without your heart doing the Dick Cheney mambo. That seems like the minimum amount of caffeine consumed by most comic book movie makers. The vast majority of superhero flicks feel like a cappuccino kissed with Red Bull, but Fast Color is a delicately sipped glass of warm tea. Although not technically a superhero film, this thoughtful exploration of what bad-ass critic Roxana Hadadi appropriately dubbed matrilineal superpowers is totally a superhero film. What’s most important is that it is the kind of gentle, creative exploration that this genre desperately needs to survive.
The best part of writer/director Julia Hart and screenwriter Jordan Horowitz’s script is how little infantilizing hand-holding it does. In the time it’d take Batman’s parents to buy opera tickets, Fast Color establishes that the world is nearly dead because it suddenly stopped raining and shows us Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) causing an earthquake. Perhaps the first film of its kind without belabored exposition, we learn that Ruth is on the run because we see her on the run. We learn that her mother also has otherworldly abilities because we meet Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) casually dematerializing a cigarette. We learn every plot point and backstory through organic, patient conversation and not hurried plot necessity.
Most of the film takes place at Bo’s farm, where Ruth and her daughter, Lila (Saniyya Sidney), awkwardly reconnect and begin asking questions. What’s amazing is that these aren’t boring, fan-service questions about how their superpowers were obtained or what villainous treachery must be staved off. These are questions like Lila pondering the “why” behind her being given such abilities, Ruth debating the “what next?” of her life, and Bo asking herself if she’s done her life wrong. Those are just the surface questions that are spoken aloud, standing in front of clever probes into race and how to embolden younger generations to do the important things we’ve been embarrassingly derelict in deferring.
Admittedly, Fast Color is insular and limited. Subplots involving the local sheriff (David Strathairn) and nefarious governmental shitheels never quite coalesce into a dense journey. The film would rather spend time mulling over ethical use of telekinetic abilities than set up a showdown. This isn’t an oversight but an intentional choice by Hart and Horowitz to let their exceptional cast have room to breathe. Mbatha-Raw is, once again, magnetic in yet-another role that should have launched her to greater fame but won’t. Toussaint and Sidney are equally nuanced in roles typically prone to bombastic melodrama.
Fast Color feels like the first chapter in a heady, allegorical sci-fi novel that Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler would have finished with profundity and excellence. Although it would be more deeply satisfying to read on, we should probably just be thankful for this novella while longing for a longer novel. As more and more filmgoers learn to speak in the modern pidgin language of comic book, let’s hope Fast Color is a sign of conversations to come.
Grade = A-