‘Fruitvale Station’ Review
There are no spoilers in 'Fruitvale Station.' Ryan Coogler's debut film, which won prestigious awards at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, opens with the actual cellphone camera footage of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, who was pulled off a BART train in Oakland, CA after reports of a scuffle. Late night rowdiness and nervous police officers quickly devolved into chaos and the next thing you know Grant, already in custody, gets a bullet in his back from close range.
With the shot still ringing in our ears, the movie rewinds 24 hours to share with us the joys and struggles of Grant's last day on Earth. It's not a subtle film, but it's an emotional one. The weaknesses during certain moments of the script are more than compensated for by the remarkable performances of Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer. What's key to the film's success is how the three roles you've seen a thousand times before – the troubled young man, the baby mama and the suffering mother – are spun to ensure that this isn't just another tale from the hood.
Jordan's Oscar Grant is smart enough to know he's being stupid. He's done some time for low-level drug running and wants desperately to take responsibility for his life. An early scene shows him practically on his knees, begging to get his old job at a supermarket back. A flashback to a prison visit from his mom shows that he certainly has a short temper, but also shows Spencer's character as a loving, yet focused mother, with very little energy to spend on foolishness.
Diaz gets the thankless role of the girlfriend, Sophina, but walks the realistic line between exasperated and enamored. She and Jordan have chemistry, and their characters have a real affection both for one another and their daughter. Jordan's inability to go step up and go legit feels like a never ending conversation, and one that eternally ends in sighs.
The anguish is shelved for the night, though, because it is New Year's Eve. After a dinner party with extended family (the dinner preparation makes a nice bit of business to introduce Jordan, the other characters and all their headaches) Oscar and Sophina decide to join friends catching the fireworks in San Francisco. Spencer, ever the thoughtful mother, strongly suggests they take the train instead of driving.
En route there's a wonderful scene of camaraderie among the multiethnic group of riders, all stuck underground as the clock strikes midnight. Later, Jordan has a conversation with a white man who was once like him – directionless and on the wrong side of the law. He found success, however, as a website designer, a notion that seems as foreign to Jordan as saying "I'm an astronaut."
By now, the audience is a nervous wreck because we know violence is coming, we just don't know how or when. 'Fruitvale Station' decides to stretch plausibility by having a number of coincidences happen at once - and also for the moppet-y daughter to suddenly become clairvoyant. While this is a tad frustrating, it doesn't lessen the third act's emotional impact. A drawn-out number of eye-moistening scenes at the hospital are added to ensure everyone remembers this film for awards season.
By the end we are convinced that Jordan's Oscar Grant has turned a corner, but that isn't enough to escape his fate. And the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness. Of course, we have no way of knowing if the real Oscar Grant had the thoughts Michael B. Jordan expresses on his face, but it really doesn't matter. The shooting is inexcusable and as a story 'Fruitvale Station' hits all the beats for tragedy.
'Fruitvale Station' is very good. Certain scenes of high drama are played to the cheap seats but if you aren't choked up at the end, you may have some kind of problem. That said, I was left unsure what the film's message is supposed to be. "S--- happens?"
'Fruitvale Station' opens in select theaters on July 12.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.