If you peruse this week’s new releases on your VOD service of choice, or your Redbox kiosk, or your local Best Buy, there’s a pretty decent chance that the title at the top of the stack will be Shazam!. It is, after all, a big spring superhero origin story, with decades of brand recognition, and the backing of a major studio and comic book distributor (Warner Brothers and DC, respectively). Further down on the physical/digital new release shelf, you’ll find the superhero origin story more worthy of your time and attention: Julia Hart’s Fast Color, a breathtakingly emotional and stunningly moving tale of a family coming to grips with their “abilities.” We failed this movie in theaters, but here’s what’s wonderful about movies: it’s never too late to discover a great one.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Ruth, whom we first discover wandering a brown, desolate version of the American Southwest. Eight years have elapsed since the last rain, rendering this world dry and desperate – and that goes for its inhabitants as well. “The world’s going to die,” Ruth’s mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), explains, simply, in voice-over. “I can feel it coming.”
Ruth left her mother years ago, leaving her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) in Bo’s care. She was running with a bad crowd, into drugs and such. “I always think about Ruth,” Bo confesses. “How did she survive out there, as broken as she is?” But it soon becomes clear that Ruth’s journey isn’t an aimless one; she hopes to return home, to repair her relationship with her mother, and create one with her daughter.
Taken on their own, those narrative bones could make for an exquisite indie drama – the kind of exploration of familial conflict, of unforgiven resentments and buried secrets, that John Sayles used to make. (His frequent leading man, David Strathairn, is on hand as a sympathetic sheriff.) That’s the genius of Fast Color– unlike the superhero movie of your choice, which is applauded for maybe, subtextually being about something else besides what its hero can do, Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz flip the formulation inside out. It is, first and foremost and above all else, a heartrending relationship movie about real, complicated people. The special effects are just window dressing.
And even when the protagonists’ superpowers are introduced (“our abilities,” they’re called), they don’t merely exist for their own sake; they’re a means to a narrative end. These three women have a kind of advanced telekinesis, which allows them to move, disassemble, and reassemble objects, but even the scenes in which those abilities are revealed are about something more; in the process of trying to harness these gifts, these women are challenging each other, helping each other, fixing each other, and connecting with each other. “We’re not superheroes,” Ruth tells her daughter. “We’re just trying to get by.”
What’s most striking about Fast Color, throughout these early sections, is how patient a filmmaker Hart is – and how thorough. She and Horowitz build a world that’s lived-in and thought-through, full of clever background details (the tattered “Report water wasters” sign on a diner wall) and worked-out logistics (the systems of selling and buying the water, which has become like currency itself). And the narrative – as propulsive as it is – will stop for earned character moments, like Ruth getting lost in the song on a jukebox (and Bo’s mirroring moment, listening to Nina Simone), or the three women sitting in uncomfortable silence during their first breakfast together.
Yet in the picture’s last half-hour, Hart suddenly, effectively moves from a mosey to a gallop, urgently cashing in the emotional currency she’s accumulated over the previous 60 minutes. It’s overwhelming, this movie; it felt that way when I first laid eyes on it, at SXSW last year, and even more so the second time around. What makes it so special? Aside from the sensitivity of the acting and the confidence of the direction, there’s something about it that feels authentic, grounded – anchored, even. In his New Yorker review, Richard Brody puts his finger on it: this is a superhero movie “unlike any that I’ve seen from a major studio, in that the characters seem to have their feet on the actual ground rather than on a set.” It speaks volumes that a low-budget movie like this can seem to exist in the real world, while every pricey Marvel movie, no matter where it’s set, seems to be shot against the same Georgia green screen.
So why, then, was Fast Color such a commercial failure – grossing a scant $76,916 in its four-week run, a fraction of even a mid-level superhero movie like Shazam? Guesses are easy. It was distributed by Codeblack, a Lionsgate subsidiary that made, it seems, an insufficient marketing investment. By the time they picked the picture up last September, its considerable SXSW buzz (it was one of the most acclaimed films at last year’s festival) had died down – and the distributor made the perhaps ill-advised decision not to put it out that fall, where it could have presumably played Toronto and positioned itself as a fall prestige picture. Instead, it was scheduled for the spring, first in late March and then mid-April. By then, its novelty as a female-led, female-directed superhero movie had been consumed by Captain Marvel; its theatrical landing was basically blown out of the sky by the double-barreled shotgun blast of Marvel and Avengers: Endgame.
All of this is why I shouldn’t be in the box office prognostication business, because watching those incredible closing passages of Fast Color unspool in front of a rapt SXSW audience with tears rolling down my cheeks, I’d have sworn I was looking at the indie hit of the year. After all, I insisted, it’s a superhero movie! But this moment of movie monotheism isn’t about that. Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame weren’t megahits because they’re superhero movies, as convenient a shorthand as that’s become for all that ails the industry; they were megahits because they were Marvel movies, and Disney movies. The troubling dominance of that studio, which is responsible (at least partially) for the year’s top five grossers to date, is, yes, partly attributable to a keen commercial sense, an instinct for what moviegoers want – or, more accurately, want more of. But this kind of unblinking consumer brand loyalty is also worth sounding an alarm over, particularly when the casualties aren’t just other studios’ failed franchise plays, but gifted filmmakers with stories to tell that don’t fit into those tight, simple boxes. (Hart, thankfully, will be fine – she already has another feature in the can for, ironically enough, Disney’s new streaming service.)
Bellowing into the cogs of the Disney machine can make one feel like an old man yelling at clouds. But those of us who are invested in the artistry of movies, who want to see new stories told and watch new voices succeed, have been terrified about this kind of event-based, conglomerate-controlled landscape for quite a while. There will always be giant movies, the carefully crafted commercial products of giant studios. But when that’s all there is, small, special films like this one get lost in the shuffle. And that’s a loss for all of us.