Saturday, May 18, 2019

Adding Color to the Sky

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

"Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky."--Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

There is a gloomy sense of millennial unease threaded through Fast Color (2018, directed by Julia Hart), a sense of a world on the downward side, worn out, done. In spite of its fantasy plot, this is very much a film about climate change and the looming extinctions--possibly including our own--that the century ahead holds in store. Contrary to its title, it's a monochrome film, shot mostly in de-saturated colors across desolate landscapes. Like many genre films that don't want to be thought of as genre films, it's a dour, unhappy experience.

The plot of Fast Color follows Ruth, a woman on the run from her past and from government agents in a post-apocalyptic landscape where water is a precious resource. She suffers from seizures, and with the seizures come earthquakes. The government is interested in her ability to cause earthquakes. Ruth, for her part, wants on part of that. She meets a man, Bill, in a diner who offers her a ride when she spots the cops investigating the stolen car she's been driving. After some small talk, he reveals that he's a scientist and that he has been looking for her for a while. He can "help" her. She wants no part of it, and flees, after shooting Bill in the hand. She takes off cross-country, away from the road. Eventually, she ends up at her childhood home, where her mother, Bo, and her daughter, Lila, still live. Lila has never known her mom, who left home young from guilt over a particular trauma, and into drug abuse and alcohol. Ruth tells Bo that she's sober now, and that with sobriety has come her seizures. Bo and Lila both have abilities, like Ruth, but ones that they can control. They can take things apart with their mind, and put them back together exactly the same. They can't change things or fix them, though, but the experience reveals colors to their perceptions, colors that Ruth can't see. They can fix Ruth least of all. She has to fix herself. Meanwhile, Bill and his posse of government agents is closing in, as is Ellis, the county sheriff, who has a particular relationship with Bo and Ruth. Ruth attempts to recover the abilities she had as a child, the ones her mother and daughter both have, as she takes a breather from her wandering. When it becomes clear that her presence is putting her family in danger, she drives off, but ends up having a particularly bad seizure down the road, and an epiphany, when she sees the colors when she recovers, and realizes that she can "fix" the sky, which hasn't provided rain in years. But the government isn't done with her, and it's not done with her family. They take Lila into custody, prompting Bo and Ruth to confront matters head on...

Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

At its core, Fast Color is a family drama, in which three generations of women are estranged from each other and must find some kind of reconciliation in order to move on with their lives. Like many such dramas, it's centered around addiction and guilt over past wrongs. Actors love these kinds of dramas, and it gives them something to ground themselves when the filmmakers add elements of fantasy. This is theoretically how the best magical realism works, depending on the level of fantasy applied to it. In this film, the actors are Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth, Lorraine Toussaint as Bo, and Saniyya Sidney as Lila. David Strathairn is Ellis. The performances are pretty good, and the film takes full advantage of Mbatha-Raw, who in a different universe would be a major movie star. She may get there yet. She's asked to hold the screen for this film's entire running time, and she manages it seemingly without effort, even though the filmmakers have deglamorized her for the part. The camera just loves some actors, and she's one of those actors. The fantasy element of the film tends to bump the film out of the realm of magical realism, though, because magical realism seldom encompasses what is essentially a superhero narrative. The film runs away from that idea until the end of the film, when it becomes overtly a superhero movie as Bo and Ruth try to rescue Lila. An audience that has suspended its disbelief to this point may find it crashing down as Ruth manifests powers that would fit in with the X-men and suggest that Mbatha-Raw would make a splendid Storm (note: she would).

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

The film lacks spectacle, though. There are no action sequences as such--the scene where Ruth escapes from Bill's car is as close as the film comes to an action scene. Its wonders are strictly small scale. Small enough to make almost no dent on the gloominess of the the film's world-building. The film suggests that it was Ruth herself who "broke the sky", though other explanations are offered, and it seems like she "fixes" it after her epiphany, but human beings don't get off quite so easily. The paranoia toward a government intent on recruiting wild talents remains, along with its attendant hints that the white men pursuing power (all of the government agents are pointedly white in a film where the lead characters are three black women, after all) will be the death of us all. It also hints that black women have power that is sleeping and when it awakens, it will shake the world (literally in this film's case). This is a lovely sentiment, with an appealing level of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Who knows? Maybe the film is right.

Lorraine Toussaint and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

In any event, this is a modest film with modest ambitions (and modest means with which to achieve them). It fulfills those ambitions for the most part, but I can't help wonder what this might have been like in the hands of filmmakers with a pulpier sensibility. Fast Color utilizes special effects that are unspectacular and not particularly complex, although the "colors" of the title are a lovely break from the monochrome of the rest of the movie when the filmmakers finally show them to us. They aren't being stingy with them, so much as they're paying close attention to the film's point of view, but they also aren't providing the audience with something magical that they'll remember as they walk away from the film. The film's signature effect is similar to the way Avengers: Infinity War "dusted" its characters after Thanos's snap, but isn't nearly so gaudy because it's applied at such a small scale. I can't shake the idea that it's a little bit embarrassed by its genre. It's sometimes a slog while it tries to find a footing without lapsing into ridiculousness. Still, it's not bad, and it's worth watching for the cast even if for no other reason, and maybe for the cautionary tale built into its vision of the near future. It might benefit from a sense of humor, though. It's awfully serious.

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