The setting for Fast Color is a world a short way into our own future where for unknown reasons it has stopped raining. Two years into this crisis, enough water remains (somehow) that all of civilization hasn't collapsed, but it has become a precious resource as desirable as gasoline in Mad Max, and culture has subtly shifted itself around water consumption, enough so that by the time the protagonist washes her hands using a bottle that she's just had to barter for, it made me choke a little bit to see such waste, while telling me a good deal about who she was. So let that sink in a bit. Hell of a good hook for a post-apocalyptic thriller, I'd say. The fascinating thing about this is the movie isn't actually a post-apocalyptic thriller, not really. It's a character drama about a woman who has problems with her estranged mother and the daughter who never knew she existed. The setting is usually just the background and frequently less than that. Also, all three women are superheroes.

So Fast Color: a movie with a whole lot going on, and no particularly rigorous strategy for how it wants to express all of it. It's a mess, frankly, but a very rich, lively, humane mess. It's a film that drowns in its ambitions, but it's also a low-budget indie, so those ambitions are all expressed without any bombast - almost like it specifically calls attention away from what it's doing. It's a strange movie that looks perfectly normal and in some ways almost pedestrian, right up until something flares up to to remind us of just how many different ideas are being juggled.

The main character is Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a drifter in the wide expanse of the middle United States, someplace never pinned down or given a name (it was shot in New Mexico, and there's a vaguely Southwestern flavor to the landscape, but it could just as easily be that this is a vision of someplace like Kansas or Iowa after a years-long drought). In addition to picking up whatever details we can glean about how this world works, we learn two things fairly quickly about Ruth herself: one is that she's prone to seizures, and these seizures seem to trigger a small, localised earthquake. The other is that she's trying as hard as she can to keep this psychokinetic power buried deep within herself, and it appears in fact that part of the reason she's a drifter is that she wants to stay as far from human populations as possible, just in case. Very early on in the film, she accepts a ride from a mild-looking fellow named Bill (Christopher Dunham), whose bland personality hardens the instant she gets in his car, revealing himself to be a government scientist whose group has been following her for some time. She's able to escape, and with nowhere to go, finds herself at the home of her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), who has been raising her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). This is a very uncomfortable situation for everybody, though Ruth is the only one who's actually unhappy about it.

What follows is a very lovely, gentle story about the three women learning to communicate with each other, realised through Bo teaching both of the other two how to harness their skills. These skills are manifest in some remarkably lovely visual effects sequences that I imagine must have been the main expense of the whole project: Lila has been lately learning how to use her mind to disassemble physical objects down to a molecular level, and rebuilding them, and this is visualised in the form of colorful clouds of dust swirling in a roughly spherical shape in space. These effects sequences are the difference between Fast Color, a interesting and cluttered failure, and Fast Color, a striking and off-kilter and wholly enthralling fantasy. These moments aren't just a genre flourish, but the punctuation marks that indicate where in the film the three-way tension between the leading women has shifted, especially the moments when Ruth herself has had some kind of breakthrough that pushes her towards being more emotionally available to Bo and Lila, or towards being more comfortable with her own self. They are ebullient, triumphant scenes, with the weightless quality of the floating clouds of bright colors matched by the most energetic flourishes in Rob Simonsen's wonderful score, which otherwise sticks to menacing, rumbling drones - all the better to make these moments stand out.

The messiness comes in the form of the other two plotlines - Bill's pursuit, stymied by the local sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn), who has some unspoken interest in the whole affair, and the ongoing matter of the rainless apocalypse - insistently muscling their way into the character drama. It doesn't really "work", to be completely honest. The family drama already gives director Julia Hart (who co-wrote the script with her husband/filmmaking partner, Jordan Horowitz) plenty to develop, and Mbatha-Raw, Sidney, and especially Toussaint give her all the complex emotions necessary to make Fast Color an entirely satisfying experience. It's not that I dislike the plottier material; on the contrary, Strathairn is wonderful in his role, and his scenes with Toussaint have a melancholy loveliness to them that's in some ways the best thing in the whole movie. It is, however, significantly underdeveloped. The reality of living in a world without rainfall, or even just a region that was once the breadbasket of a continent suddenly bereft of water (this is one of the points the film is unclear on) is barely explored at all; the government mission exists solely as a narrative mechanic, with Bill's interest in Ruth mostly clear because of what we know about her, not because we know for a fact what we knows about her. The film sets up a fascinating world and then does almost nothing with it; the knowledge that Hart and Horowitz are developing a television series to follow the end of this story (which is a clear-cut sequel hook) makes the whole thing feel a little bit like a pilot episode, although it's just as possible to read its open-endedness as a winking joke about superhero media.

Ultimately, though, this is more charming than frustrating. Fast Color is a very generous film to its viewer: it gives us a bunch of stuff and weighty ideas about society and identity to go with it, and then steps back to let us make sense of it, while focusing on the matter of telling a satisfying human story, rather than a convoluted bit of genre myth-making. Given that its genre is one that is far too often plagued by tedious literalism and hand-holding, the fact that Fast Color allows so much of its depth to remain mysterious and unexplored makes it feel more like the filmmakers have built a sandbox for us to play in than anything else. And there's something awfully rewarding about that, even if it's a bit busy and shapeless. The story of Ruth and her family is enough to give it meaning all by itself, is the thing, and the sprawl around that story manages to call more attention to the one stable element at its core. It's a broken movie, but in a most appealing, inquisitive way.