“Fast Color” is many things — a dreamlike dystopian drama; a warm celebration of family and female power; a teasing hint of superhero-origin story — none of which fully explains its gentle grip on our attention. What it is not, is speedy, with a narrative that moves carefully, even languidly, and visuals so beautifully patient that we have time to memorize their texture and import. Special effects are all the more so for being used sparingly, and the movie’s few characters feel no need to be constantly explaining themselves. For fairly long stretches, there are no major incidents — which is not the same as saying that nothing happens.
Set in a near-future America parched and wilting from eight years of drought, the movie drops us into a car beside an anxiously fleeing Ruth (a perfectly fraught Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a recovering addict whose sudden seizures can ignite earthquakes. The vibrations alert the G-men on her trail, drawing them too late to the dingy motel where she had stopped to rest and dress the mysterious wounds on her wrists. Her destination is a remote farmhouse where her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint, wonderful) is caring for Ruth’s small daughter, Lila (Saniyya Sidney), who barely remembers her.
All three can see the colors suggested by the title, though their rainbow-hued significance remains shrouded, and all three can use their minds to disintegrate objects then restore them, good as new. (The utility of this becomes clear later, underscoring the movie’s pacifist message.) These uncanny abilities, which Ruth has struggled to control and Lila is refining at a rapid pace, have been passed down for generations and kept the family in seclusion. Feared and hunted by the authorities, the women are shielded only by a kindly local sheriff (David Strathairn) whose investment in their safety is clearly personal.
Moody and strange, “Fast Color” has a solemnity that haunts almost every frame. Shot in New Mexico, Michael Fimognari’s images are wide and graceful, with skies that stretch the edges of the screen and desert landscapes of deep, sweeping barrenness. The movie’s visual boldness is fine compensation for the occasional patches of weak dialogue and rudimentary plotting, the finesse of the camera work a constant pleasure. When Bo pulverizes a lighted cigarette into a smoky swirl of glowing tobacco flakes before delicately reassembling them, the sight is entrancingly magical, its simplicity in keeping with Rob Simonsen’s perfectly calibrated score.
A small, intimate story that hints at much bigger things, “Fast Color” sometimes feels like a prologue, an appetizer for a meal that may or may not appear. The screenplay (by the director, Julia Hart, and her husband, Jordan Horowitz) is unfussy and focused, its gentle ecological warnings woven through a modest tale of familial destiny. Rewarding despite its restraint, the movie has an elasticity that pushes the imagination in any number of directions, offering an expressive allegory for a lineage of powerful black women whose strength, unleashed, could literally shake the earth.
“This is only the beginning,” Bo promises. I hope so.