The world's gonna die," proclaims the voice of Ruth (English actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw) over the opening moments of the slightly clichéd but involving sci-fi drama Fast Color. The killer drought that Ruth and her fellow citizens are facing has forced water rationing that even Californians would consider drastic. The land and sky have a dry and exhausted look to them, to match the mood of the inhabitants.
Other changes are going on, many of them centering on Ruth. As writer-director Julia Hart's screenplay has it — written with Jordan Horowitz — the young woman can predict earthquakes minutes before they occur, and, among other miracles, can make cigarettes dissolve in the air. Ruth's down-to-earth "super powers" and the trouble they cause are part of the reason she hits the road to the rural home of her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), where Ruth's estranged young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) is there to greet the prodigal fugitive.
It's plain from the start that filmmaker Hart is firmly in allegorical territory with Ruth and her family, with all the potential dangers that entails — dystopian allegories are more common than deep-fried mozzarella sticks at the multiplex these days. But the performances of Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast, Belle), Toussaint (Selma), and child actor Sidney lift the otherwise ordinary scenario, despite its similarity to other innocent-prodigies-versus-sinister-government-agents plot lines (e.g., Firestarter). Bo and Lila possess extraordinary abilities, too. In common with her mother, Lila can disintegrate objects, and is able to repair a broken-down truck on her own.
National-security spooks naturally want to forcibly quarantine the whole family for further research, but higher powers intervene — that, and the local sheriff (David Strathairn) is on their side. Black women are the key to salvation here, with a little help from the music of Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone. Not exactly a Stephen King formula, but combined with filmmaker Hart's calm, reassuring atmosphere — despite the prospect of the impending death of planet Earth — and Mbatha-Raw's righteous rebel attitude, the planet appears to be in good hands after all. Is Fast Color a "corrective" to the myriad of instant-legend superheroes on the market? Not exactly. But now that they mention it, it could be an enjoyable alternative.