Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler
Fruitvale Station is a series of vignettes searching in vain for connective tissue. Its anchor is the excellent young actor Michael B. Jordan, and while he and the other performers in this dramatization of a harrowing recent tragedy are all solid, the final product is still a bit too scattered to make an impact, despite the moment-to-moment resonance. The film may leave a deeper mark now, so soon after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced; the death of Trayvon Martin may be one that has only a slight similarity to the plight of the late Oscar Grant, yet it’s hard to shake loose even the slightest parallel. Fruitvale Station works best as a reminder to keep tabs on society’s struggles to come to terms with racism than as a powerful cinematic statement.
Jordan plays Oscar Grant, who begins New Year’s Eve 2008 by promising his longtime and long-suffering girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) that he’s going to leave behind the criminal path that led him to jail twice before. Oscar, a young father to the sweet and adorable Tatiana, goes about his day, trying to hold onto his job at a grocery store, planning his mother’s birthday party, and preparing to go out with his friends to celebrate the beginning of 2009 with some drinks and fireworks. What we know—thanks to the real-life cell-phone video of the inciting incident kicking off this film—is that Oscar will wind up at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station at 2:15 in the morning on January 1, 2009, and get shot in the back by a cop after being pushed around by a particularly aggressive police force.
The episodic style may be a deliberate choice that debut writer-director Ryan Coogler made, but the simplicity and brevity of Fruitvale Station ends up working slightly against its favor. Here is a film that is totally dependent on the performances, more than any other aspect. The script is adequate if not remarkable, and Coogler’s direction, which falls squarely in the shaky-cam you-are-there category of filmmaking, is the same. (And in the third act, Coogler avoids showing the impact of the blows the cops rain on Oscar, as if he’s graduated from the Christopher Nolan School of Action Avoidance Filmmaking.) While none of the actors do a bad job, they can only carry so much weight, and considering the ramifications of this story in modern America, Fruitvale Station nearly buckles under the pressure. In essence, whatever Coogler has to say about this story, separate from the performances, amounts to reading out a news story from the paper and saying to a friend, “God, isn’t this terrible?” What happened to Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 was terrible, and an example of gross police misconduct. But that mentality doesn’t translate totally into film.
However, the acting in Fruitvale Station almost never slips into melodrama, save for one troubling and overly manipulative choice in the final moments. Jordan, who’s shown a propensity for wringing emotion in unexpected ways on TV shows like The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood, is powerful as Oscar, nicely balancing his attempts at maturity in front of his mother and daughter, and his slips back into the life he’s trying to avoid with the presence of his raucous friends. Jordan has a natural, loose chemistry with the rest of the cast, never once making it doubtful that he is Oscar, that this is his family and friends, his struggling life. As Oscar’s mother, Octavia Spencer has far less to do, but her best scene comes early, in a flashback where she emphasizes to Oscar that she won’t let him put the family through any more hardship by his repeat trip to jail. That flashback ends up being a pivotal moment for other plot-related reasons, but the emotion works wonders because of Spencer’s firm performance. What the entire cast achieves—even Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray in cameo roles as the two cops who get tangled up with Oscar at the eponymous train station—is a sense of unforced realism. More than the camerawork or the script, the actors never feel showy or flamboyant, even when the story seems overly convenient.
The standout shot in Fruitvale Station, at least one that has become far more meaningful since George Zimmerman was acquitted and the notion that what happened to Trayvon Martin is something that could happen to anyone if a certain set of circumstances arose, with little legal recourse. We watch as Oscar and his friends hop onto the BART train, heading for downtown San Francisco, preparing to ring in the New Year, and then the train soars off. The camera doesn’t move with the train, even though the people inside the cars are now a blur. Oscar doesn’t stand out in the crowd. He is one of them, and they are part of him. What happened to Oscar Grant that fateful early morning is devastating and heartbreaking. Imagining what his family must have felt like as this tragedy unfolded could bring you to tears. Fruitvale Station, in spite of its sterling ensemble, never feels as legitimately tearjerking as a movie as it does as a simple echo of the senseless violence occurring in the world on a daily basis.
— Josh Spiegel