In a relatively short yet distinguished career thus far, Julia Hart has made sure not to confuse power with strength. With her feature screenwriting debut, “The Keeping Room,” she observed a group of Southern women during the Civil War to battle the brute force of the men that had become a shell of their former selves as soldiers by banding together to survive a world suddenly bereft of laws, while her directorial debut “Miss Stevens,” centered on a teacher put in charge of a class trip to a drama competition where she ends up learning more from the students as she recovers from a recent loss, though she is the one seen by them as being in control. In Hart’s follow-up “Fast Color,” you’re immediately aware of how powerful Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is, even if she’s introduced speeding away from some unknown threat, her wrists having rope knots still around them, frayed at the ends to suggest she could break free rather than use a knife to cut through them, yet she seems more lost than ever.
Ruth is great at making escapes, but less good at finding a place to stay, having run away from home as a teenager and after exhausting her options elsewhere, she’s bracing herself for a return to her hometown of Garrison to reunite with her mother Bo (a commanding Lorraine Toussaint), with whom she isn’t on the best of terms. There is also the not so small matter of Ruth’s ability to create earthquakes – yes, in a metaphorical sense as her past decisions have created devastating aftershocks for those closest to her, including a now nearly teenage daughter Lyla (Saniyya Sidney), who she’s never met before who Bo has taken into her care, but also in a quite literal way, with an ability to shift tectonic plates that is a result of her family’s unique DNA. As it turns out, Lyla can assemble and disassemble objects at will and Bo doesn’t advertise her special abilities, but you know they’re there.
Though the allegory could weigh heavy on other filmmakers, the burden of power channels through “Fast Color” far more lightly than it does its central characters and Hart ensures the film is wonderful in every possible way, rich with the irony of a clan that has the ability to reconstitute matter at odds with their inability to come together as blood relatives. Even without the threat of a dogged scientist (Christopher Denham) and a local sheriff (David Straitharn) whose suspicions have been raised by Ruth’s return to Garrison, the family has enough trouble living under one roof, with Lyla eager to leave to see the world beyond the seeming dust bowl she calls home, and Ruth, having seen too much of it, uncomfortably making amends with her mother who’s been weaned from past experience not to trust her. As if this triangle weren’t compelling enough, Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz take great pains in creating an intriguing backdrop for “Fast Color” to play out inside, depriving the world of water for the past eight years – while others thirst for it, the family uses it to mend cuts – and giving the family an ongoing journal originally penned by its matriarchs from generations ago, revealing a long lineage of women that have had to suppress their powers or simply didn’t know what to do with them, passing on their fears and anxieties as much as their unique talents.
In spite of its sci-fi-tinged milieu insisting on big, special effects-laden set-pieces towards the end of “Fast Color,” which Hart nonetheless shows distinctive flair for, the most dazzling scenes in the film are the most intimate, with the heart soaring when being privy to watching Ruth feeling comfortable enough to start introducing Lyla to the likes of Lauryn Hill, X-Ray Spex and Nina Simone, or Bo encouraging Lyla as she becomes quicker at fixing a truck that it isn’t getting any easier to do, but she’s just getting better at it. However, given Hart’s track record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most human moments in “Fast Color” are the most extraordinary, although the film is filled with plenty of other twists and turns to keep one on their toes. In fact, Hart shows that it’s keeping in touch with our humanity that is our greatest strength and on that score, “Fast Color” is mighty strong stuff.
“Fast Color” will play at SXSW on March 16 at 4:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar A.