Fruitvale Station (USA; 85 min.)

directed by:
Ryan Coogler
starring: Michael B. Jordan; Octavia Spencer; Melonie Diaz; Kevin Durand
Fruitvale Station

Chris says: "So powerful and upsetting are the last twenty-odd minutes of Ryan Coogler’s debut feature that it’s not hard to see why it won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. In recreating the moments that led up to the real life tragic shooting of Oscar Grant by a transit cop at the Oakland locale that provides the film’s title, Coogler guides the audience through a chain of events that, while often speculative, feel chillingly realistic as the tone nimbly shifts from celebration to sudden conflict to escalating chaos and ultimately, appalling brutality. Even though the film opens with actual footage of the event recorded off of a witness’ cell phone, this dramatic reenactment at the conclusion still packs a punch to the gut.

I’d almost hail Coogler as a major talent if the rest of FRUITVALE STATION didn’t illustrate how shamelessly manipulative a filmmaker he often is. Those fifty-odd minutes before the final chain of events imagine what Grant’s last day alive was like prior to those moments. While Coogler likely drew upon as many artifacts as he could, he also questioningly filled in some considerable blanks—it’s one thing to depict Grant as a man loving enough to care for his young daughter and affable enough to casually assist a stranger at a supermarket deli counter, and quite another to devise a scenario where he witnesses a car hitting and killing a lovable dog to show what a kind, decent soul he is when he cradles the poor, dying mutt in his arms. Although we occasionally see his temperamental, less savory side, he’s ultimately rendered more of a saint than a sinner, prodding us to ignore any shades of gray surrounding his fate.

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan at times seems a bit low-key for what should be a potentially star-making role, but his professionalism and ease solidly anchor the film. As his mom, Octavia Spencer exudes an almost effortless grace and subtlety in her scenes with him to the point where you wish there was much more of her on screen. Other figures, such as Grant’s long-suffering girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and the aforementioned supermarket customer (Ahna O’Reilly) seem two-dimensional in comparison.

By nature, FRUITVALE STATION is difficult to fully disparage because it basically amounts to a work of protest towards an unfortunate incident of grave injustice (and in light of the Trayvon Martin case, a blatantly relevant one). Still, the way in which it fictionalizes what led up to the incident doesn’t really do justice to Grant’s memory. Rather than end the film at Grant’s death, I would’ve preferred that Coogler considered more in-depth the lingering aftereffects of this incident (particularly those on his family and community) or that he had simply made a documentary instead. 3 cats"

Michael says: "While FRUITVALE STATION tells the true story of 22-year-old Oscar, victim of an horrific encounter with the San Francisco police on New Year’s morning, 2009, Ryan Coogler’s debut film choses instead to focus on the previous day, Oscar’s determination to improve his life with the new year, and the relationships he fosters, and develops with the various women in his life. Oscar’s past dealing drugs landed him in jail for a period of time, but with the support of his mother, and the love of his wife and daughter, he’s working on his second chance, seeing the turning of the calendar page as an opportunity to create some important resolutions that will bring him success as a man. While an attempt to regain his job is less than satisfying, an encounter in that grocery store with a young woman struggling with choices at the fish counter is what truly defines this young man’s character. Oscar’s no saint, and his desire to walk the straight and narrow is not without side trips, but his good-nature and determination certainly seem to be elements that will contribute to his success during this coming-of-age. Tragically, forces of inexcusable carelessness at best, and racial discrimination at worse, conspired to cut that coming-of-age short.

"Michael B. Jordan handles Oscar beautifully, showing us his strength and conviction to be a better man, while keeping it real, and underlining the struggle that the young man faces each and every day to avoid slipping into bad habits, or giving into a slightly volatile temper. Melonie Diaz is terrific as Oscar’s wife Sophina, balancing her desire for Oscar to succeed, with a protective mother’s instinct warning her to proceed with caution. Octavia Spencer, always wonderful to watch, will certainly be many viewers’ touchstone, as the supportive mother who knows when it’s time to let go and let her son stand on his own two feet and take responsibility for his actions. For me, the pivotal relationship in the film is with the stranger Oscar helps in the grocery store, and Ahna O’Reilly (THE HELP, THE PERFECT FIT) hits just the right notes in her two brief scenes. Thanks to Vicki for recommending this film or else I would have probably missed it. 4.5 cats"

Diane says: "Since I don't know anything about Oscar Grant outside of this movie (mea culpa!), I was fine with its presentation of a compassionate yet irascible individual, prone to making bad decisions. There are such people, so I don't mind believing that Oscar was one.

“I was given a survey after the movie about my movie habits and my response to this film in particular. That surprised me. I checked off ‘harrowing’ as one of the appropriate adjectives. Octavia Spencer, as Oscar's mother, will get a supporting nom from me.

“All of the trailers shown in my multiplex before FRUITVALE STATION had all-black or primarily black casts (MANDELA, THE BUTLER, BLACK NATIVITY). Can I put two and two together and deduce that the audience for FRUITVALE STATION is assumed to be black? I hadn't seen these trailers before. Are our movies so racially divided? 4 cats"