Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Fruitvale Station"

 5 / 5 

There were so many ways writer-director Ryan Coogler could have gone wrong with Fruitvale Station,  but his film avoids the kind of righteous anger that would have been entirely justified yet hollow, leaving it feeling like a docu-drama-style recitation of facts.

The facts themselves are, indeed, angering: Early on New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old, unarmed man named Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by a police officer on the platform of a BART train station in an impoverished area of Oakland, Calif.  The shooting incited rage, and led to protests and riots, while the officer who killed Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.

But Fruitvale Station isn't about the shooting itself, and it almost certainly takes liberties with the facts.  It tries, instead, for something more: to get us to understand who died that morning, and to appreciate that no matter what we might think going on, Oscar Grant was a real person who died a tragic, senseless death.

After opening with the now-familiar video of the shooting, taken by a BART passenger, Fruitvale Station defies expectations: This is not a movie about a young hoodlum trying to escape the oppressive ghetto, nor does it try to glorify (or condemn) the drug-fueled existence around him.

Rather, Coogler and the extraordinary young actor Michael B. Jordan anchor the story in the final 24 hours of Grant's life, emphasizing the awareness Oscar has that he needs to get a grip on a situation that is rapidly spiraling out of control.

He loves his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter, but he's been cheating and she isn't sure she trusts him anymore.  He needs a job, but he's not mature enough to keep one.  He knows selling pot is an easy way to money, which he desperately needs, but he's increasingly aware it's a dead-end life.

In short, Coogler's screenplay sets up Grant as a perfect screen hero, a character who desperately wants to be better but doesn't know how.  He's surrounded by a loving, supportive family, especially his mother (Octavia Spencer), who has been very clear about her disapproval of the choices that have already landed him in prison once.  But she loves him, and it's easy to see why.  Jordan is a winning, charming actor who brings a sad, defeated edge to his portrayal of Grant.

It's worth saying this again: Fruitvale Station is not a documentary or a fact-based procedural.  It's a deeply felt, engrossing drama that paints a rich, complex picture of a life already filled with loss but tinged with hope; one exchange between Oscar and a white yuppie on a downtown San Francisco street has the potential to take the movie off the rails of disbelief but instead feels true and honest, emphasizing how close -- emotionally and physically -- Oscar was to the kind of life he hoped for, but how out of reach it was for him.  In the Bay Area, one short BART ride is the difference between affluence and desperation.

We know how this story will end.

Oscar won't be able to pull himself out of his past, he won't even make it home on that first day of the year.  If the movie is a little maudlin at times, it has every right to be:  It's a tragedy about a life cut senselessly short, but even more than that, it's a tragedy about the way life gets too much in the way for some unlucky people, about how no one can see past their color or economic condition, about how much it hurts to hope for something that can never happen.  (It also, not inconsequentially, offers a visually satisfying solution to the problem of depicting how people communicate in today's endlessly wired world.)

By showing us the small details of Oscar's final day, Coogler has made a beautiful, thoughtful elegy for an entire life, a powerfully but quietly anguished film that shocks and angers in equal measure.  The shock isn't just because of the forceful brutality used on the BART platform, it's because what happened that morning robbed one deserving, striving, imperfect person of the rest of his life.  

Fruitvale Station began with characters I thought had no relation at all to my life, and ended with me openly weeping for them.  It is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year.

Viewed July 21, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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