Nearly two decades after M. Night Shyamalan popularized – if not introduced – the stealth/“real world” superhero movie with “Unbreakable” (2000), director/co-writer Julia Hart expands the subgenre with “Fast Color” (2019). It flew under the radar during its limited theatrical release, overshadowed by “Glass” and “Brightburn,” but perhaps it will find its audience on Amazon Prime. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t gotten awards-season buzz, because it’s such a confidently directed art film anchored by great cast chemistry.
Several meanings can be drawn from “Fast Color’s” title. Most notably, this is a visually colorful film under the lens of cinematographer Michael Fimognari. He has manned the lens for several of horror auteur Mike Flanagan’s projects, including the miniseries “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018), a classic frame-scouring feast. While there aren’t ghosts hidden in the corners of this movie, you will want to soak up many frames — and the editing is leisurely enough to allow for that.
Along with TV’s “Roswell, New Mexico,” “Fast Color” is 2019’s advertisement for the Land of Enchantment, featuring starry blue-black evening skies and wide-open desert spaces that evoke a less intense Western version of “The Walking Dead.”
(Light spoilers follow.)
In this drought-laden near future, water is scarce and expensive ($20 a gallon) and shelves are nearly bare. It’s not a happy time, but it’s more economically stagnant than apocalyptically tense. Actually, that makes “Fast Color” scary in a different way: as a plausible near future.
Another meaning behind the title is skin color, as Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz chronicle three generations of black women with superpowers. At first, we follow Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is on the run from government scientists. Mbatha-Raw could carry the movie by herself, showing Ruth’s scared and smart traits.
But “Fast Color” nicely opens up when we meet Ruth’s mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), and daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). Coincidentally or not, Sidney also played a girl with superpowers on the run from the law in the TV series “The Passage” (2018).
The three women make for a fractured yet loving family as we learn about their abilities at an ancient farmhouse. Even though superhero origin stories have never been more old hat than they are now, the writers and actors keep things so personal that the events feel immediate and groundbreaking (literally, in the case of Ruth, who can create earthquakes).
The effects team nicely complements Fimognari’s work here. When Bo and Lila break things into molecules and then put them back together, they see in “color.” The mix of effects and cinematography comes into play even more in the final showdown.
David Strathairn as local sheriff Ellis and Christopher Denham as government scientist Bill also give strong, low-key performances. The stakes are high and familiar in “Fast Color.” However, no one is yelling at the sky, and that’s what sells it. The film arguably even has something to say about hands-off parenting, as Bo is mostly OK with Lila experimenting with her powers, similar to how a parent might sit back and let their child learn how to walk and talk.
Thanks to the performances and its look, “Fast Color” – much like “Unbreakable” – slowly builds into a rich and rewarding film that transcends the fact that we’ve seen this story before. If it had been a box-office hit, we might’ve gotten a cinematic universe. Instead, it’s merely one little gem, but hopefully more people will discover it.