Sundance 2013: Mournful ‘Fruitvale’ is an emotionally accomplished feature debut
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler
Dramatizing the last hours of 22 year old Oscar Grant before he was slain by a police officer in 2009, first time writer/director Ryan Coogler delivers a stirring and sympathetic tribute to his life. Actual cell phone footage of the killing in an Oakland, California rail station named Fruitvale was posted by witnesses to YouTube and is utilized at the beginning of the film to drive home the grim reality of this senseless death. With these harrowing images in mind, the movie rewinds back to the start of his final day. The coming catastrophe looms over every step we see Oscar take, amplifying the meaning behind the smallest of meetings and glances. Illuminating the worth of an unemployed ex-convict who also happened to be a loving father and son, Fruitvale is a moving and important reevaluation of someone usually written off by society.
Coogler’s account of the young man’s actions mostly have us follow the time he spends trying to make up with family and refocus on providing for them. The director’s visual flair for little but emotionally resonant interactions is apparent when Oscar’s texting (seen on screen) smoothly combines with the aimlessness of his day to accord the story a tone with an exceptionally youthful edge. Having worked cooperatively with Grant’s kin on the project, accusations of taking a biased point of view are sure to come Coogler’s way. Whoever Oscar Grant truly was, he didn’t deserve to die. The script gives a touch of humanity back to a person whose character was assassinated by some media outlets during the trial of the responsible officer. Fruitvale doesn’t overly concentrate on the horrific way in which he died but more pointedly on how eagerly he greeted a second chance at life and what is ultimately lost when we regard others as inherently without value because of their past or what they look like. Violent deaths pass through our lives everyday by way of statistics and coldly reported news stories. Rarely do we get intimate knowledge about what an individual fatality means to a family, dear friends and neighborhood.
Actor Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) shifts seamlessly between the gentle affection Oscar shows family and an erratic temper that flares when confronted. Jordan reveals another measure of redemptive depth when we see the absolutely unconditional love Oscar possesses for daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). His tender pleas for forgiveness from his girlfriend present a subtle hint at the impulse driven person he was and the secure man he now wants to be for her. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) portrays his mother with a commanding concern as her troubled child tries to make the difficult decision to turn his life around for the better. Convincingly strong in the worst of times, Spencer’s small part glues Grant’s loved ones together as they wait for news of his condition following the incident. The name recognition of Spencer, the prestige of Forest Whitaker as a producer and two major awards from the Sundance Film Festival are sure to bring further attention to this Sundance Institute developed movie.
The depiction of his death and the grief stricken reactions of those close to him are sentimental but not unjustifiably. Getting to know this victim personally and seeing how tragedy can strike anyone is a frightening but valuable approach that optimistically looks to create a compassionate audience. Whatever his past misdeeds or personal failings, nothing warranted the brute force that ended him. A heavy sense of collective responsibility for Grant’s lost potential sorrowfully pervades the atmosphere. Although a heavy viewing with a bleak conclusion, Jordan is personable and charming enough to keep you concentrated all the way through to the chilling finale. The director’s debut is an agonizing, complicated and accomplished character study that lends a voice to a soul too soon taken.
– Lane Scarberry