By Kenneth Turan / Los Angeles Times
“Fast Color” is a nifty little film, a smart, adventurous and surprising production made with visible care and considerable love. It’s also a superhero movie with strong science fiction elements, but nothing like the way we’re used to seeing them.
While movies of the Marvel and DC variety are today’s movie establishment, the genre’s origins are raffish and independent, and it’s good to see director Julia Hart going back to those roots and doing things a little differently.
So not only is the protagonist and unwilling tower of Ruth a woman of color, her powers turn out to be multi-generational, passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter. In fact, you could argue that celebrating the power of women is central to what “Fast Color” is about.
If that sounds as though it’s edging into soapbox territory, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Edgy and disturbing, “Fast Color” (co-written by Hart and producer Jordan Horowitz) keeps its messaging subtle as it involves us in its story.
It can do that because of the emotional commitment of the film’s players, especially star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (doing some of the best work of her career) as well as writer-director Hart, clearly excited about the potent genre-bending story she’s been able to pull off.
The universe of “Fast Color” is one very much like our own, contemporary but just a little further down the road, a setting where it makes sense to say “the world is a strange place these days.”
There is, however, a key difference: It hasn’t rained in eight years; not a single drop of water has fallen from the sky in all that time.
We access this world not in a big city but, as impeccably production designed by Gae Buckley, through its rural small towns, convincingly stark and crumbling.
And we meet Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) very much on the run, escaping from a dilapidated building with nameless authorities fast on her trail.
She stops at a dilapidated motel, maybe somewhere in the Midwest, where access to water costs almost as much as the room, and suddenly she feels it. Something, some transformation, is about to happen, something she has experienced before and can in no way control.
Shaking like a human power surge, Ruth, it turns out, is a powerful energy source all on her own, creating earthquakes and even causing tectonic plates to shift when one of her overpowering fits is upon her.
Aware of her power but unable to figure her out, all kinds of government types are after Ruth, eager to take her into custody and imprison her as an unwilling laboratory experiment.
If this was an X-Men movie, Ruth would soon find her way to Charles Francis Xavier and the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, but she has no such luck.
Very much on her own, Ruth makes her way to the only place that has to take her in, the house she grew up in, located on a remote farm.
Living there are the two people she is closest to, the two people she abandoned when she fled years ago but is now determined to reconnect with.
That would be her mother Bo (“Orange Is The New Black’s” Lorraine Toussaint) and her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney, with “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” among her credits).
These women, as it turns out, have related but different powers of their own: They can disintegrate objects and then have them re-form, with the bursts of color that accompany the process of reformation giving the film its name. (Chris LeDoux supervised the excellent visual effects.)
But the authorities, personified by a scientist known only as Bill (Christopher Denham), are relentless, and they enlist the help of Sheriff Dean Ellis (the veteran David Strathairn), the law in these parts and curious about Ruth for reasons of his own.
Key to making this story so involving and intriguing is the quality of the acting across the board, starting with Mbatha-Raw.
On critics’ radars since 2013’s “Belle” and gaining more notice with Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Wrinkle In Time,” she excels here as a troubled fugitive all but overwhelmed by her powers.
“We’re not superheroes,” she says when asked by her awed daughter about her gifts. “We’re just trying to get by.”
Though most contemporary science fiction is dystopian by design, the thrust of “Fast Color” is finally anything but. This is a film that leaves you uplifted instead of worn down, and that is another reason, in addition to all the others, to cherish and support it.