“Fast Color” stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman who can literally rattle the earth with her pain. Her kinetically super-powered Ruth is an addict on the run from the government, a dash that starts with her breaking free of rope wrist-cuffs and continues across a dust-bowl America where rain hasn’t fallen in eight years. It’s been roughly that long since Ruth has seen her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), though she can blame herself for that. Now clean, or trying to be, she’s sprinting for sanctuary in “Miss Stevens” director Julia Hart’s simple allegory about destructive women who can’t handle their powers.
Technically, this is a story about generations of women. While Ruth scrapes up the cash to buy water to wash off the blood from her latest close scrape (here, water runs $12 a liter, doled out in battered plastic containers sealed with rubber bands and rags), Hart cuts to the fugitive’s estranged mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and kid hiding out in the rural homestead that’s sheltered their family for centuries. There in Bo’s kitchen, paintings of flowers and branches give the film a refreshing jolt of life, while the dry cereal the two eat without joy reminds us of what everyone has lost.
“Fast Color” opens with a voice we’ll learn is Bo’s reading from an ancient journal that’s their Bible of sorts, though unlike Jesus, they’ve kept their powers hidden away. Fair enough — look what the Romans did to him, and what scientist Bill (Christopher Denham) might do if he captures Ruth again. Composer Rob Simonsen’s shape-shifting electronic and violin score keeps the mood tense. Still, when Bill urges Ruth to stop running — “You’re hurting people,” he pleads — he’s not wrong, though it’s unclear how much he knows, or if it’s just a good guess.
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Bo specializes in bursting objects into molecules and putting them back together just as they were. At night, mom causally splinters her lit cigarette into a tornado of ash and vapor, and then finger-whirls the flecks back together to take a drag. “Parlor tricks,” Bo says self-mockingly, but it’s lovely, low-stakes CG that works wonderfully with cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s evocative sparseness, all shots of open plains and big, blue skies, and isolated houses glowing in the darkness. Lila can do that, too, but she focuses her attention on the practical. She’s a whiz-bang mechanic, no mysticism needed. Though neither Bo nor Lila have the blueprint to fix things with Ruth, who’s still so wobbly she can only stir up disaster. As Bo signs, “Once something’s broken, it stays broken.”
Mbatha-Raw, recently seen as the physics genius in “A Wrinkle in Time,” has played shades of this character before. In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights,” she was phenomenal as an out-of-control pop star buffeted by superhuman pressures. So it’s a surprise to see her be so flatlined in a starring role she’s more than earned. Instead of the film’s compelling emotional center, Ruth races across the screen more like a blank-eyed, fidgety wild hare. Toussaint’s protective, fearful grandmother steps into the vacuum, which turns out to work just as well. Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz, also her husband and the producer of “La La Land,” are examining the hereditary effects of anxiety, and how a hundred years of mighty mothers smothering their combustible daughters has triggered cycles of rebellion and retreat.
“Fast Color” hits its themes about empowerment hard, especially the idea that if mankind ever knew what women could truly do, the planet would implode. Ultimately, “Fast Color’s” thesis is more inspirational than the film, which often seems like it, too, is struggling to swirl itself into something more solid. Instead, its magical sparks don’t quite congeal as the audience can’t help hoping a movie this empathetic and unusual reaches transcendence. “We’re not superheroes,” Bo tells Lila. “We’re just trying to get by.” “Fast Color” wants us to imagine what would happen if they tried, a blessing to experiment that applies to Hart’s own sci-fi ambitions.