A film review by Craig J. Koban September 4, 2013

RANK:  #6

FRUITVALE STATION jjjj

2013, R, 84  mins.

 

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar  /  Octavia Spencer as Wanda  /  Melonie Diaz as Sophina  /  Ahna O'Reilly as Katie  /  Kevin Durand as Officer Caruso  /  Chad Michael Murray as Officer Ingram

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler

FRUITVALE STATION - made with guileless confidence, dexterity, and tactful economy - represents a powerful debut film for its 27-year-old director Ryan Coogler, who attempts, I think, to put a face to a recent and unspeakable human tragedy.  

It chronicles the day in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man that was shot and killed by a police officer while at an Oakland BART station in 2009.  What the film does – with a remarkable level of restraint and poise – is to dramatize the roughly 24 hours leading towards Grant’s shocking death.  FRUITVALE STATION attains a level of raw, gut wrenching tragedy, but it’s also a deeply humanistic film about a man who was taken from the world far too early in life.  How very, very sad. 

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 2009 Grant – along with some of his friends – was detained by BART police officers.  It was alleged that Grant resisted arrest, during which time multiple officers pushed him face down to the ground to restrain him.  One of the officers ended up shooting Grant in the back, after which time he was taken to Highland Hospital, where he later died due to his wounds.  The officer that committed the shooting – whose name was altered in the film – was charged in January of 2009; he pleaded not guilty, claiming that he mistook his firearm for a Taser gun.  Astoundingly, the defense stuck, and the officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to just two years, minus time served.  He was released several months after being imprisoned and is now on parole. 

Grant’s shooting was caught by witnesses and bystanders on cell phones, and FRUITVALE STATION opens with some of the actual footage of Grant’s murder, which thankfully does not sensationalize the tragedy or show too much for tawdry effect.  It’s almost crucial for audiences to see it in order to fully understand the sheer madness of such an utterly preventable event.  From there, the rest of the film dramatizes Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) final day, and the film makes great strides to not make him an instantly sympathetic figure.  Grant was a victim, to be sure, but he was not a resoundingly squeaky clean and law abiding citizen either.  For the most part - as shown in the film - he’s kind of a thug that’s trying to go legit, seeing as he is a father to a young daughter and is desperately trying to support her and his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz).  Alas, he lost his job at a local supermarket due to being routinely late, and with very little job prospects on the horizon, Grant turns to petty drug dealing to get by.      

 

 

We see flashbacks to his time in prison, during which time we see how he became prone to spontaneous acts of violent aggression.  There’s a heartbreaking moment when his mother (Octavia Spencer, as pitch-perfect of a performance as you’re likely to find in a film all year) informs her son during one prison visit that she’ll no longer be returning to see him until he’s released.  In the present, Grant spends most of his day prepping for his mother’s birthday party and wants to ensure that it goes off smoothly and without a hitch.  We see Grant’s coming and goings with friends and family throughout the day in all of its ordinariness, which only heightens the film’s sense of fly-on-the-wall veracity and immediacy.  After attending the birthday celebrations, Grant decides to head into San Francisco via the BART with friends to see the New Year’s fireworks…and then… 

Coogler does one thing absolutely correctly in FRUITVALE STATION: he absconds away from giving the film a polished sheen and façade.  He shoots the movie with rough and loose camera work – not to be confused with hyperactive queasy cam, mind you – which is noteworthy.  Coogler never seems to want to make FRUITVALE STATION as an angry call-to-arms melodrama.  He also wisely never preaches an overt agenda.  Instead, he simply lays out the particulars of Grant’s day, his relationships with his family and friends, and ultimately his ordeal with the BART officers with a raw frankness that immerses us to the point where we forget we are watching a drama.  Some have complained that the film lacks a narrative or sense of trajectory, but these critics miss the point.  FRUITVALE STATION attempts to capture the everyday randomness of Grant’s life during the hours that led up to his death.  The entire film that builds to its appalling climax should appropriately feel  spontaneous and freewheeling in approach and style.  

Michael B. Jordan is an actor that I am familiar with in terms of his TV work (THE WIRE and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), but his mesmerizing turn as Grant puts him on the cinematic map.  The way he channels all of the inherent contradictions of Grant allows for our intriguing engagement into the film and his story.  He makes his realty-based character both emotionally vulnerable and uncertain while, at the same time, relaying his streetwise and oftentimes impetuous and hot headed toughness.  Jordan’s ultra naturalistic and textured work here will get Oscar voters buzzing, as will Octavia Spencer as his strong-willed, but long grieving mother.  Spencer is an actress that can almost intuitively bring a sassy grit and nuanced dignity to just about any role, but here she outdoes herself her by giving a performance of both outwardly strong gravitas and internalized agony.  The bravura-acting tandem of Jordan and Spencer brings Grant’s story to life in ways that few other actors would be able to.  There is not one false note by them in the entire film. 

Of course, FRUITVALE STATION is, all in all, a crushingly depressing film.  At a lean and trim 84 minutes, Coogler does not waste any time with needless exposition or superfluous scenes that don’t contribute to the whole.  All that matters here is Coogler bringing us to its nightmarish conclusion where a young, troubled man trying to empower himself against many of life’s obstacles was ultimately never giving a full opportunity to do so.  Grant was just 22 when he was murdered and his perpetrator is now free to live out what semblance of a life he has in the crime's wake.  FRUITVALE STATION, oddly enough, never really comes off as a hostile and bitter film about this pointless social tragedy.  It certainly condemns the actions of the officer, but it simply lays out the events for us to witness them and make out own observations.  

This is an important film for everyone to see.  I rarely find myself stating that in any review.  FRUITVALE STATION is not just an empowered and tour de force debut for the young and exceptionally gifted Coogler, but it also is a searing and unforgettable work of ambition that has messages it wants to relay without outright and obviously stating them.  It certainly grieves the loss of Grant, who emerges here as a very complex soul with his own set of personal demons.  It taps into the inexcusably shameful misfortune of his death.  Even though the film ends on a note of paralyzing sadness, it nonetheless achieves a positive and uplifting aim of making viewers reflect on who they are and how we all relate to one another.  FRUITVALE STATION has lingered with me for days after screening it, which is a trait of all great and significant films...and it’s far and away one of 2013’s most unforgettable.  

  H O M E