Fruitvale Station (opening today) begins with real footage taken by onlookers of a horrible tragedy that occurred in California in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009. 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Police officer on the platform of the Fruitvale Station train stop, after he was detained following a fight that broke out on-board the train.
The film, Fruitvale Station, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the award for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day, leading up to this unthinkable moment. Although it is beyond tragic, the filmmaker - first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler - does a disservice to the audience by leading with the real-life footage of the incident. Knowing what will happen to this poor man and where the story is leading, the remainder of the film comes across a bit heavy-handed. Much more effective, perhaps, would have been to end the film with it.
This quibble about the placement of the actual incident footage doesn't make Fruitvale Station any less compelling, nor does it make the dramatization of the incident toward the end of the film more impactful. It would have, however, given more meat to the scenes leading up to the end, for those of us who didn't otherwise quite know where the story was going to take us.
Oscar Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, perhaps best known as the young street thug, Wallace, on Season 1 of the great HBO series, The Wire. He was perfectly cast as Wallace and is again perfectly cast as Oscar. Both are street-hardened men with criminality in their veins, but played by Jordan, we also see the flash of childhood innocence in their eyes.
This sympathy is an important feeling to have while watching Fruitvale Station, and it is laid on quite thick. Oscar is a father to a beautiful little girl and the sort of guy who checks in with his mom and grandma daily. He helps out a random girl at the market and seems to want to be on the right track. But he also has a criminal background and cheated on his girlfriend and baby's mother. The film tries hard to act neutral in his portrayal but it shows him as more of a saint than a sinner.
Which the film has every right to do, by the way. The problem, from a dramatic point of view, is that this person could have been portrayed as an incredibly horrible person. It wouldn't have made the horrifying and shocking act at Fruitvale Station any less horrendous. So in that sense, it seems unnecessary to show scenes like when Oscar helps a dog who has been struck by a car.
Jordan though, is fantastic, as is every single supporting player in the film. Melonie Diaz plays Oscar's girlfriend and gives a very strong performance. The incredible Octavia Spencer doesn't have many minutes on-screen, but it's the kind of short yet memorable and powerful performance that Oscar nominations are designed to recognize.
Coogler's gritty portrayal of the train scene is by far the film's best and perhaps the most gut-wrenching sequence of the year thus far. We now expect films like this to be shot in that shaky, hand-held style, but every so often, this common technique adds to the nervous tension of every moment. When Oscar's mother tells him to take the train - a more responsible alternative to driving into the city drunk after a night of partying - you almost want to reach into the movie and grab the phone, or scream at the screen in an attempt to change the inevitable outcome.
Knowing that the Titanic sank didn't take away from the power of that film, just like knowing the ending of Fruitvale Station from the beginning didn't make it any less heartbreaking. But imagine the impact if you hadn't known. Fruitvale Station is a good film - as well as a timely film - that could have been made great.
Genre: Drama, Biography
Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Ahna O'Reilly
Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler (feature-film debut)
Opens locally on Friday, July 26, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time