My favorite thing about South by Southwest is walking into a movie knowing nothing about it, aside from maybe who stars, and walking out with my mind completely blown. That’s what happened to me with “Fast Color,” the second feature film from Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”). If you can imagine Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time” merging with Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” you might be able to get a handle on how special this movie really is.
In this case, I added “Fast Color” to my SXSW watchlist because of actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The film begins in a not-so-distant future under extreme drought conditions. We learn that it hasn’t rained in eight years and that crops have essentially stopped growing. Public places have posters on display that say “Report Water Wasters,” and when our lead character Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) stops at a roadside motel, it costs almost as much to rent her room as it does to buy a half-gallon of water from the front desk.
Ruth is on the run, but we don’t really know why until she begins to have severe convulsions and ultimately causes a minor earthquake. Her mysterious powers have government scientists trying to locate her for further study. But she has a mission to get back to her family and avoid capture.
When she finally makes it to see her mother, Bo (the always remarkable Lorianne Toussaint), she isn’t exactly a sight for sore eyes. Bo has been taking care of Ruth’s young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) for her entire life because of Ruth’s drug problems. It’s a cautious reintegration, but one that becomes paramount upon learning that Lila has her own special abilities and hates being isolated because of them.
The strong supporting cast includes Christopher Denham from SXSW-alumni film “Sound Of My Voice” and David Strathairn. Supernatural elements elevate what is already an intriguing drama and help create a captivating world that features some really mesmerizing special effects work, especially for an independently produced film. Hart co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Jordan Horowitz, and it beautifully takes the notion of black girl magic literally.
In a post-film Q&A, Hart said that she really wanted to tell a story that celebrates the empowerment of women of color and also to have a chance to see mothers as superheroes.
In addition to the impressive effects, the film features stunning cinematography from Michael Fimognari (who recently shot “Gerald’s Game” and “Before I Fall”). It helps to have shot in the open skies of scenic New Mexico, but there also are shots rather handsomely bathed in deep blues and reds that just jump off the screen.
“Fast Color” is a thoughtful and compassionate sci-fi redemption story worth squeezing into your schedule this week. It screens again 4:45 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar.