Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Shortly after midnight on January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American, was shot by a BART transit police officer in Oakland, California; he died a few hours later in the hospital.  Grant, who was unarmed, was returning home from New Year's Eve celebrations in San Francisco.  This real-life tale, which in of itself was a hot bed of instant news-making-- the event was captured by many a civilian cell-phones at the time it happened-- re-surged it's case for urgency and immediacy in wake of the recent events and subsequent trail of George Zimmerman.  The film which posits the last twenty-four hours in the life of Oscar Grant is the focus of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's alert debut feature won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this years Sundance Film Festival.  Neither filmmaker, nor distributor (in this case, The Weinstein Company) could have known that the Zimmerman events (a case of another young and unarmed African American) would have coincided at the very same time.  It may seem a bit cynical to note, but it gives Fruitvale Station that unexpected glimmer of urgency that it may not have otherwise possessed.

Not that the film itself isn't a well calibrated movie.  Coogler, a youngster, aged twenty-seven, exhibits a clear-eyed expressiveness in telling his tale, an authority and a clarity that's for the most part devoid of earnestness and easy reductions.  His greatest asset exhibited in Fruitvale Station is in his view of Oscar himself, taking a harder to trod, more difficult assertion of raw humanity rather than painting the young man as saint nearing martyrdom.  It's in his unflinching presentation of man over issue that keeps the film fresh and nearly always above the surface.  We learn throughout that Oscar spent the New Years holiday a few years earlier incarcerated; Coogler neither judges nor dismisses.

It helps that Oscar is portrayed by the talented young actor Michael B. Jordan, who deserves the lions share of the praise.  A television vet of previous shows ranging from Friday Night Lights to The Wire, Jordan portrays Oscar as a charismatic dreamer, one who's luck has been all over the place in his short twenty-two year existence, but who keeps face in spite of everything.  He's recently unemployed, living with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal), displays the tell-tale signs of arrested development, but an eagerness to pull it all together, coupled with the raw inevitability that he may not. 

There's a striking two-part early scene where Oscar returns to the local grocery store he was recently fired from and playfully ingratiates himself with another customer in a showing of out-of-his-way generosity; it's followed by a more upfront segment where he pleads with his former boss about returning to his post.  In this sequence, Jordan and the film complicate the picture by tracing both dimensions of Oscar-- a hard-working charmer and a hot-head impulsive.  It's the balance that is ably constructed by Jordan, wherein just enough pieces of a fully-fledged person are identified and glimpsed throughout his last twenty-fours hours.  We slowly seem to get an idea of Oscar and in getting to know him, only makes the inevitable conclusion that much more wrenching.

As the film goes on, there's a more treacly balancing act that Coogler stages that is not quite as successful.  The potent electricity of Jordan's performance aside, Coogler shows some jitters along the way-- the most striking moment comes in a fictional and nearly after school special worthy sequence in which Oscar tries to save a stray dog.  The intention, the foreshadowing and the metaphor is a bit too heavy handed and contrived to work even in the best intended of films.  As is a later sequence when a seemingly affluent white couple make nice with Oscar, perhaps written as a last course of redemption. 

Cooger's reach outside of Jordan's masterful portrait read a bit undercooked as well-- Diaz is wonderful in the role of the long suffering girlfriend stock character that offers little, and Octavia Spencer is terrific as Oscar's mother in a performance that at first reads like a parade of award clips, but plays as a humane melding of tough and soft maternal love-- but the interment supporting players feel vague and out of place.  It's the micro world of Oscar that Coogler is interested in, and that's all well and good, if it weren't for unnecessary flourishes that express the exact opposite.  As well as an un-needed eagerness for the clever-- his camera swerves when it need not, and cell phone data is printed on the screen throughout.

Yet, most importantly, and potently, Fruitvale Station sticks its dismount and deservedly earns respect from its honest emotional cues and whatever piece of the "ripped from the headlines" conversation that may ultimately contribute to more butts in the seats in at its theaters will be quietly and movingly sidelined by the brute and compassionate honesty of Jordan's hopefully star-making portrait.  B

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