**If you’re not familiar with the events surrounding Oscar Grant and wish to watch FRUITVALE STATION completely unspoiled, then do not read this until after you’ve seen the movie. SPOILERS are aplenty. But after you’ve seen it, please come back and take a few minutes to read my post. Thank you!**
If there’s a problem in trying to review Fruitvale Station, the debut from writer-director Ryan Coogler, it’s the fact that it’s so hard to divorce yourself from the tragic event that occurred on New Year’s Day 2009 in order to look critically at the movie itself. What happened to Oscar Grant is reprehensible, and the feelings this tragedy creates in the viewer are so visceral that perhaps there may be a tendency to overlook the movie’s flaws and just proclaim it a masterpiece because of the way it hits you in the gut.
Fruitvale Station opens with the real cellphone footage of Bay Area Regional Transit police officers restraining Oscar Grant and one of the officers pulling out his handgun and shooting Grant in the back at close range. So we in the audience already know what’s about to go down in the third act. But Fruitvale Station isn’t a polemic; the movie just presents Oscar’s day in the life, his last day.
It’s December 31, 2008, and Oscar Grant, beautifully inhabited by Michael B. Jordan, is trying to get his life on the right track. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not a saint either. He can’t hold onto a job, but that’s just because he goofs off and doesn’t always show up to work on time. He loves his daughter and the mother of his child. Since he can’t maintain steady employment, he sells drugs (though the movie suggests he may stop.) He loves his mother (a heartbreaking Octavia Spencer), but their relationship shows the strains his less-than-responsible behavior have created (he did time in jail, and during one of her visits, an event takes place that will have ramifications later.)
Oscar doesn’t lack self-awareness; he opening acknowledges the fact that he’s a “f— up.” Throughout the movie, Oscar quotes something he heard from Oprah, saying that in order to create a habit, you have to do something continually for thirty days. He’s just trying to do the right thing, for himself and his family, and he knows he’s his own worst enemy. The movie is about day one, but had he lived, you have the feeling it would’ve been a LONG thirty days.
Writer-director Coogler does a fantastic job in creating these little slice-of-life moments that don’t need to be loaded with meaning in order to be effective. But there are moments when Coogler stages scenes that do feel weighed down with significance that he can’t weave into the fabric of the movie without interrupting the flow and calling undue attention.
The biggest offender involves a dog. While filling up his car with gas, he witnesses a dog getting hit by a car as the driver just speeds away. He carries the dog off the street and consoles the dying animal before it passes away. The scene reeks of symbolism that’s completely unnecessary; we know what’s going to happen later via the cellphone footage presented at the top of the movie, so we don’t need these dramatic signposts.
While Coogler isn’t in complete control of the tone, he knows how to get a performance from his actors; nobody here delivers a moment that doesn’t feel completely authentic. And Michael B. Jordan does something kind of miraculous; he doesn’t just present a character in so much as he presents a life, something that isn’t just here in order to move the story along but something that truly feels as if it exists outside of the frame of this movie. It’s hard to describe what he does, but it’s so subtle. There’s just so much love and pride and emotion he’s able to project without making a big deal about it.
Even though we know what will happen to Grant once he gets off the train and onto the platform at the Fruitvale station, it still knocks the wind right out of you. Yes, a disturbance happens on a train filled with people just trying to have the fun you’re suppose to have in a big city on New Year’s, and things could have escalated. But nobody got hurt, and the fact that a young man was killed as a result of authorities trying to create order is revolting.
And that’s what Fruitvale Station does so well. In spite of a script that has occasional problems with tone, the movie is a triumph of sympathetic imagination. A real sense of heartbreak is created in witnessing Oscar Grant’s life getting snuffed out. As disadvantaged or as screwed up as some people’s lives may be, everybody should have the opportunity to make life better for themselves. Hell, even our Founding Fathers said so. Unfortunately, in that pursuit of happiness, the system puts more obstacles in the way for some than for others.Follow @filmbyfelix