Film Review: Fruitvale Station

Intimate and sincere, Ryan Coogler’s Sundance-winning, awards-bound debut functions as an emotionally grounding character study as well as a sobering manifestation of social injustices that surround us.

The shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by the police in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at BART’s Fruitvale Station stirred up protests across the San Francisco Bay Area. The incident was recorded by many on the train and the footage, which spread online within moments of the shooting, brought the debate on police brutality as well as social injustice and racial prejudice front and center. Grant was unarmed, and was being detained by the police with a group of his friends whom he’d just celebrated New Year’s Eve with after they allegedly got mixed up in a fight. The officer who shot Grant claimed he had mistaken his gun for his Taser. Grant didn’t survive and died in an Oakland hospital the next day.

Processing this headline-making tragedy of recent history and adapting it into his intimate debut feature Fruitvale Station, writer-director Ryan Coogler reconstructs the final day of Oscar’s brief life, one breadcrumb at a time: through encounters with family, friends and strangers alike, as well as phone calls and text messages throughout the day (the latter, in a creatively sound decision, are digitally rendered on screen, visually underlying the necessity of every piece of the puzzle). Tracking the footsteps of a struggling Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan of Chronicle, “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire” in a remarkably mature and humanistic performance) until he reaches his final and doomed destination, proves to be an emotionally grounding exercise, through the study of a character that is equal-part kind in his core and on the verge of slipping.

The film opens with voices of Oscar and his girlfriend Sophina (charmingly portrayed by Melonie Diaz) talking over a dark screen, reciting to each other their own New Year’s resolutions. This scene is immediately followed by archival cell-phone footage of the catastrophic night, serving as an immediate reminder that Oscar will never get a chance to make any wrongs right. Not as a father, or boyfriend or son. In fact, the only chance he has, unbeknownst to him, is the final day of 2008.

Going into the film, we certainly already know the kind of storm Oscar is going to be hit with. Yet, getting to know him by bouncing around his daily, ordinary hardships, the ending naturally holds greater weight. Thanks in large part to an unassuming performance by Jordan, who does an astonishing job in materializing Oscar’s inner battles, and the sure-handed, patient camerawork of Rachel Morrison, whose long takes convey a sense of realism with a rare kind of ease, Coogler shines Oscar’s humanity through moments of random kindness and at times despair.

A lot of credit goes to the film’s persistence in revealing the two sides of Oscar, letting his at times intimidating shell be as much a part of his identity as his affability. In fact, two impeccable sequences perfectly transmit his character’s essence onscreen. In the earlier part of the day, Oscar visits the supermarket he used to work at (to beg for the job he was fired from), observes a customer unable to decide what kind of fish to buy and lends a friendly hand (or cell-phone) by having her talk to his grandmother for advice. Moments after this charming encounter, we are quickly confronted with a very different Oscar, just an aisle away, verbally assaulting his former employer who refuses to give him his job back. In yet another sequence that holds much essential gravitas, Oscar’s compassion is put to the test through a hit-and-run case involving a driver who kills the very dog Oscar just played with. His reaction here—the kind that you’d hope every human being would deliver—summons immediate empathy, and instigates anger mixed with regret, foreshadowing that Oscar’s own ending won’t be that much different from what he’s just witnessed.

If Fruitvale Station falls short at anything, it is at maintaining a dignified stability on its emotional course. No doubt the material is as devastating as they come. And watching Oscar—a product of a loving family circle as much as the poor choices that link to the underprivileged background he grew up in—nearing death will make your tears well, whether you like it or not. Yet at times, Coogler’s elegant affection gives way to obviously well-intended (yet misfiring) empty melodrama, which unfortunately mars the film’s ingenuity, lessening its poignancy. Coogler, perhaps because his documentarian-minded, meticulous research understandably placed him too deep in Oscar’s world, pulls a few heartstrings that need not be pulled. Top of that list is seeing Oscar run and play with his daughter…in “slow-motion.” An honest moment between the two—brushing their teeth together—happens to be far more endearing.

Still, Fruitvale Station is a vital film, featuring some of the finest performances you’ll witness in a while—one belonging to Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s nurturing mother. And thankfully, the competent hands of The Weinstein Co, which acquired the film before it went on to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, will make sure it does get seen widely and perhaps even go as far as the Oscars, especially in screenplay and acting categories. On a personal level, the film is a lament for a life cut way too short. On a greater level, it is a human-rights film, a sobering reminder on how far things unfortunately haven’t come in terms of racial injustice (as it is nonsense to try to detach Fruitvale Station from the troubling backdrop it is set against). While the personal aspect is destructive of a loving family, the latter dimension concerns an entire nation.