Fruitvale Station (2013)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Plot: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
Genre: Biography / Drama
Awards: Un Certain Regard - Avenir Prize (Cannes Film Festival); Won Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (Sundance Film Festival).
Rating: M18 for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
There's nothing fruity about this feature, the directorial debut of writer-director Ryan Coogler, who takes a true incident in 2008 and dramatizes it for moviegoers. Winning awards at Cannes and Sundance, Fruitvale Station comes high with expectations, perhaps too high for an American indie that is good but not particularly great.
It is an important ‘message’ film nonetheless, portraying the life of a single individual in a single day as fate has its way, changing the course of the lives of his loved ones and strangers irreversibly. This is like Crash (2005), but the focus is only on one character.
Michael B. Jordan plays that character Oscar Grant, the real-life subject of this drama in a performance that is just about right. It is the eve of New Year's Day in 2008, and after celebrating with his girlfriend and daughter with home-cooked dinner at his mother's place, he goes out with his friends for the midnight countdown, taking the crowded train.
What happens thereafter is what makes Fruitvale Station a powerful and gripping film. By then, it overcomes a weak first half and suspends itself on a tightrope, giving a sense of tension (and urgency) to the story.
Melonie Diaz gives the film's most outstanding performance as Oscar's girlfriend, with Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011) providing the supporting emotional anchor and levity as his mother.
Shot in 16mm, Fruitvale Station is largely handheld and its cinematographic approach is threadbare, working almost like a documentary except for a key flashback sequence that reminds that this is structured as a narrative. Still, its raw approach is very much befitting of its thematic material, which has a social-realist slant.
Racism and police brutality are its most explicit themes, but as troubling as these issues are, the frailty of the individual is the ore under the spotlight. It is an ore that disintegrates when socio-discriminatory forces combine to nullify the actions of the helpless.
In short, Coogler has achieved, with some success, a film that illuminates these concerns, though it only gathers momentum after some time. After which it hits the gut with a sucker punch. Not as strong a debut as its awards claim to be, but Coogler is a promising filmmaking talent to look out for in the near future.
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