Steven’s Soapbox: 2019’s Indie Superhero Movie

     2019 can probably be described as the year of the superhero movie. DC made their turnaround complete with Shazam! and hopes to wow with Joker. Marvel continued their winning streak with Captain Marvel and our new highest grossing movie worldwide. Even Sony got in on the action with the Disney-adjacent Far From Home. We also had, um, Hellboy and Dark Phoenix, but let’s not talk about those! But buried amongst these massive superhero tentpoles was a smaller film called Fast Color, the rare indie superhero film. Lionsgate’s poor marketing strategy doomed the movie at the box office, but is it worth checking out on streaming? Let’s check it out.

     Fast Color takes place in the near future, on an Earth that hasn’t seen a drop of rain for close to a decade. A young woman named Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is afflicted with seizures that cause earthquakes, is on the run from the government and from her past. After nearly evading capture, Ruth is forced to return home to her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and estranged daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). All three women come from a lineage of superpowers, and Ruth needs their help to remain safe and train. As the government closes in around her, the three women must work together to help Ruth reconnect with her powers and heal their family.

     On the surface, Fast Color looks a lot like any other superhero origin story. Person who can’t control their powers? Check. Villainous force trying to destroy/control hero? Check. Personal issues in the way of controlling powers? Check. Where this film differs is in what it’s actually about, eschewing the standard “save the world, blow everything up” storyline for a tale about trauma, regret, family, and spiritual healing. But with superpowers!

               Like this, but not as a joke.

     While the budget of the film hasn’t been listed (it couldn’t have been more than $10 million though), I found myself constantly surprised by this film. Director Julia Hart and her cinematographer Michael Fimognari get some beautiful shots in the relatively small amount of locations, and their use of color (slightly enhanced but not too much) really helps set the mood. When the film shows Bo and Lila using their powers, which is destroying and reassembling objects, I was actually very stunned. With so little money Hart created the most impressive display of superpowers I’ve seen in a long time, using cool particle effects to showcase what they can do. The two women can also “see the colors,” and when you see what that actually means, it’s an awe-inspiring feat. It restores true wonder to this genre, where giant displays of powers have become standard fare, and shows what truly talented filmmakers can do with a smaller budget.

     Some could argue that the film is still a little cliché, and that the story its telling is maybe too familiar. And to be fair, the metaphors are fairly easy to figure out. Ruth is disconnected from her powers, just like she’s disconnected from her family, she used drugs to numb her seizures and so on, but that doesn’t mean that they are any less effective. The family dynamic here is very compelling, as each woman’s backgrounds and different views propel both the narrative and their conflicts with each other. Ruth is driven by fear and guilt, Bo by the desire to protect her family (even from her own daughter), and Lila wants to use her powers to help people. This makes for some interesting back and forth as each woman wants something different, and it’s hard to argue with any of their points. We’ve seen this dynamic before, but Hart and her writing partner Josh Horowitz manage to make it work.

  Horowitz, the “Moonlight won, not us” guy.

     The biggest strength this movie has is its actors, who shine even when the script fumbles. I’ve loved Gugu Mbatha-Raw since Beyond the Lights, and she impresses me more and more with each part she plays. She takes a character that could be very unlikable on paper (drug addict, abandoned her daughter, out of control powers), and makes her into a very vulnerable and sympathetic character. More than anything else, Mbatha-Raw’s performance makes you want Ruth to succeed and regain her true powers, along with reconnecting with her family. We feel her triumphs and her failures and we root for her to find that inner peace.

     She’s backed up by two equally impressive performances from Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney, playing two different ends of the scale from Ruth. Toussaint’s Bo is a strong woman who is proud of her heritage and committed to their isolation, but despairs over her failure to help Ruth. Sidney’s Lila positively beams with the optimism of a child, dreaming of superheroics and clashing with her cynical family members. You could remove the powers and replace them with any other talent or situation, and the dynamic these three share would still power the film because it’s just that good.

  And you think your reunions are awkward!

     If I had to say anything negative about the film it would be that the script is a bit uneven. It has moments of great emotion, good dialogue and tension, at least in the beginning. It also has an empowering message for not just black women but all audiences, without feeling forced or cheesy. On the other hand, the threat of the government vanishes in the second act, lessening the stakes. Some of the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, and the second act drags because of it. The flaws aren’t so great that they damage the movie in my opinion, but I wish it could’ve been as tightly structured as other sci-fi movies.

     Those that know me know I lament the downfall of the mid-range and indie movie, and the unfortunate fate of Fast Color makes me depressed. However, with an Amazon show on the way, I’m hopeful that people will give it a shot. It’s not Endgame, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a brilliant little movie that expands the genre we all love into new territory, proving you don’t need 100 million dollars to make a great superhero film. It relies on the strength of its cast, script, and themes the way movies used to, and it really deserves your attention. Check it out!

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars