In a movie world overrun with superheroes, director Julia Hart’s independent gem “Fast Color” delivers something even more fascinating: Characters for whom special powers are both a curse and a valuable tool.
In a near-future dystopia where water is scarce, rationed and expensive, Ruth (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a woman on the run. She walks, or steals cars, to get from town to town, hiding out in motels. Then she starts having seizures, which somehow cause the area around her to experience tremors.
When the seizures are over, she’s moving again, trying to stay a step ahead of the government scientists — personified by the nerdy yet menacing Bill (Christopher Denham) — who want to capture her and experiment on her.
With Bill and his goons closing in, there’s one place where Ruth can find refuge: In the house where she grew up, cared for by her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint). Bo is leery of welcoming Ruth back, because of Ruth’s history of substance abuse — and because Bo is caring for Lila (Saniyya Sidney), Ruth’s 12-year-old daughter, who has not seen her mother since she was a baby.
Hart co-wrote this script with her husband, Jordan Horowitz (the producer of “La La Land,” and forever the guy who held up the card that said “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture). They have structured a tight chase thriller, but they play it like a domestic drama in which three generations of women confront their shared legacy — which, by the way, involves superpowers (shown through special effects that are impressive on a budget).
Mbatha-Raw (“Belle,” “A Wrinkle in Time”) gets the tough lead role most women actors never get offered, and she’s a force to be reckoned with as she displays a full range of emotions from vulnerable to resilient. She’s perfectly matched on both sides, by the talented young Sidney and the fiercely maternal Toussaint. The always-great David Straithairn has some nice moments as the local sheriff, whose role in the narrative is best left for the audience to discover.
“Fast Color” is one of those small, mighty movies that can easily slip under the radar in a busy season of blockbusters. One might bump into it on Netflix, or on a plane — but why wait? Dig into this hidden treasure while it’s in theaters.
Opened April 19 in select cities; opening Friday, June 7, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for a scene of violence and brief strong language. Running time: 100 minutes.