Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FRUITVALE STATION Tells a Powerful American Story


- Fruitvale Station is a jarring, powerful film that is well-worth watching. Not only is it one of the standout films of the year to date, but it's also a breakthrough for writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. This is Coogler's first movie, and, wow, it's a hell of a first effort. Jordan, meanwhile, has done great work already in TV and film, but this is his star-making, Oscar-worthy turn. It's rumored that these two are working on a Rocky spin-off film with Sylvester Stallone about the grandson of Apollo Creed. After seeing Fruitvale, I find that idea to be incredibly exciting. In fact, I'm eager to see whatever it is that this pair does next.

FRUITVALE STATION is the true-life story of Oscar Grant. A few years ago, Grant was shot by a policeman in San Francisco in a crowded subway station, despite not having perpetrated a crime. This isn't a spoiler for the movie, because the film opens with the actual footage that captured the horrific incident. At the time, numerous onlookers used their cell phones to record video of the shooting. The local and national outrage was immediate, and the incident sparked a wave of protests and investigations into the conduct of the San Francisco police department.

But the film isn't really about the incident or its aftermath. Instead, it's a snapshot of the life of Oscar Grant. By opening the movie with the cell phone footage of the shooting, a cloud of tragedy hangs over the entirety of the film. This is a movie about a life that was cut short, right as the subject in question was at a cross-roads. The fact is that Oscar Grant was no saint. He had a history of drug-dealing for cash, and of letting drugs and drug-dealing get in the way of holding down a stable job. He had been unfaithful to his girlfriend, who was also the mother of his young daughter. He'd spent time in prison. But Oscar was also on the verge of turning a corner. He'd stopped dealing, and was determined to walk the straight and narrow in order to support his family. He'd re-committed to his girlfriend, and planned to marry her. He was focused on being a good dad, and being there for his daughter. This was a guy who'd had a lot of bad breaks, who'd been raised in a tough environment, and who was going to have to put in a lot of work - and benefit from a bit of luck - if he ever hoped to become upwardly mobile. In a way, the inevitability of Oscar's untimely death gives the film a film noir flavor. In noir, a major motif is the way in which cruel fate can and will ruin even the best-laid of plans. This is true in the story of Oscar - in any other film, the driving narrative question would be "can he turn his life around and rise up above his circumstances?" But this film gives us an answer upfront - negating the question altogether, and becoming instead a meditation on how one person's story can be so cruelly and tragically cut short before it even gets a chance to resolve itself.

Michael B. Jordan is pretty phenomenal as Oscar. There's a realness to his performance that is striking. He embodies Oscar down to the small nervous tics. And in his eyes, we see the character's mixture of well-intentioned kindness and escalating frustration. There's an amazing scene - the movie's one flashback - where we see Oscar during one of his prison stints. His mom - played brilliantly by Octavia Spencer - comes to visit him. She loves her son, but is fed up with him ending up in jail time after time. In front of his mother, we see Oscar's carefully composed "nice-guy" persona. He's all smiles, compliments, and laid-back good vibes. Jordan shows us Oscar as he wants to be - a man who is trying to make good things happen by sheer force of will, trying to fix tough situations by flashing smiles and reassurances that everything is just fine. But when a white-supremacist inmate hurls an insult at Oscar and his mother, the carefully-composed veneer flies away, and Oscar snaps. In an instant, Jordan, powerfully, shows us the rage, frustration, and feelings of helplessness that are simmering just beneath the surface.

The rest of the cast is excellent. Like I said, Octavia Spencer is fantastic as Oscar's mother. And Melonie Diaz is also quite good as Oscar's girlfriend Sophina. The connection between Oscar and Sophina feels very authentic, very tangible. This isn't a movie where the script hits you over the head with manufactured drama between its main couple. Instead, this is a complex, nuanced relationship, colored by many small but telling moments between the two. There's also a really great child-actor performance from Ariana Neal, as Oscar's young daughter. She's funny and charming, and is responsible for some of the film's most powerful emotional beats.

For a first-timer, Ryan Coogler directs the film with pretty astonishing maturity. The film has a gritty, you-are-there aesthetic, but it's also not overly stylized. Instead, Coogler focuses in on really capturing the feel and sense of place of Oakland and the lower-income neighborhoods that Oscar calls home. The unglamorous details of Oscars life are meticulously captured, as are the details of the locations and neighborhoods. What's more, Coogler infuses the movie with a sense of dread and danger. In ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, he conveys the mixture of awkwardness and opportunity whenever Oscar's path intersects with those from other walks of life. Without hammering you over the head or being preachy, the movie smartly comments on how Oscar's race, class, and culture immediately shapes others' perceptions of him. In turn, we see how Oscar manages to both subvert, and at times conform to, those same expectations. It's all handled pretty brilliantly by Coogler. The director's one big stylistic trick is actually a pretty cool one as well - whenever Oscar sends a text, we see the text-typing super-imposed over the main action occurring on screen. What might have been gimmicky in the wrong hands turns out to be a smart stylistic device. It helps contribute to the film's sense of almost electric energy and motion, and it reinforces the idea that Oscar is both ultra-connected and yet - because of factors somewhat out of his control - stuck in place.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn't quite nail the ending. Coogler lets things linger far too long before finally bringing the film to a close, creating a final act that uncharacteristically lays things on too thick. With much of the film being so subtle, economical, and bristling with energy, the finale is disappointingly draggy.

But, wow, what a debut from Coogler, and what a breakout role for Jordan. They've made not just a great film, but a film that will get people talking about race, class, law-enforcement, and justice in America today. And, mostly, this is not a movie that sparks debate in a heavy-handed or melodramatic fashion. It doesn't cheat, and it's not overly emotionally manipulative. Focusing in on Oscar Grant - his life, his choices, his circumstances, and his death - we see a tapestry of America ... its hopes and opportunities, and its failings. This is one of the year's must-see movies.

My Grade: A-

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