The debut feature from Ryan Coogler has been the year’s Cinderella story ever since it bowed at Sundance and scooped the Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Audience Award, for U.S. dramatic film. Received in similarly rapturous terms by critics at this week’s Cannes screening, it would not be surprising to many if Fruitvale Station had the chutzpah to carry itself, or at least some of its esteemed performers, all the way to Hollywood’s awards season.
It opens with seemingly authentic camera phone footage — perhaps the very same footage that, as we learn at the film’s end titles, incriminated those involved — of 22-year-old Oscar Grant being accosted by two police officers. We know, even if we remain unaware of the resolution, that things are not going to end well.
While in many ways Coogler’s film feels very much like the same redemptive gangster drama we’ve seen so many times, the difference here, ostensibly, is that it’s real. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) wants to stop slinging dope and get a proper job so that he can support his girlfriend and his daughter, but of course he faces professional hurdles that then impinge on his personal life. In fact, it is really only a familiar drama in as much as it features a character trying to extricate himself from less-than-desirable circumstances. It is Coogler’s riveting approach and the spellbinding performances that make it feel so fresh.
In many scenes it’s the relaxed chemistry between the performers, many of them unknown or non-professional, that takes them all the way — notably a charming exchange between Oscar and a local white girl shopping for raw fish at the local supermarket Oscar used to work at. It is here that we observe the erratic and explosive nature of Oscar, as he ends up grovelling to get his old job back and is ostensibly rebuffed, much to his frustration. Like Oscar himself, the tone of this film can shift in an insant, yet avoids feeling particularly jarring because Oscar’s life is, in one way or another, almost always in peril.
However, despite his misgivings, including a previous stint in the clink depicted through flashback, Oscar is a kind soul, demonstrated by a brief scene in which he tends to a dog injured by a hit-and-run driver. As such, the film is more about defining Oscar’s thoughts in his final day than what happened to him in his final moments. On a personal level he is a liar and a cheat, but he is trying to better himself, and on a basic humanist level it’s difficult not to identify with that.
Coogler thankfully doesn’t ladle out the minor details up close. A communal dinner scene says plenty without needing to speak, and the chemistry between Oscar and his daughter as they simply brush their teeth only rachets up our interest, well aware that father and daughter are soon to be separated.
There are a few foibles, though, specifically the feeling that Oscar’s constant preoccupation with the possibilities of tomorrow might be a tad manufactured or at least exaggerated for dramatic effect. One late-day conversation between Oscar and his daughter, in which he promises her he will come back home, seems particularly telegraphed for emotional purposes. This attempt to signpost the ending appears to be a vague effort to imbue the already heart-wrenching story with needless cosmic significance. Without question, the story of Grant’s wrongful death stands strong on its own terms.
The third act, however, does generate palpable tension as audiences begin to wonder when the fatal bullet will discharge. Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray are functionally effective in two glorified cameos as the officers involved in the shooting, and though it might be easy to question the veracity of these events, given how weighted they seem against the BART Police Department, their documentation can, as the credits state, be found in video-based fact.
Incredulously remaining trip-wire tense despite a known outcome, Fruitvale Station is an exceptional dramatic feature propelled by superb performances across the board, specifically Jordan (best known to audiences for his work on Chronicle) and Octavia Spencer, who, playing Oscar’s mother, surmises the emotional turmoil of this torrid situation. If the film can survive on the same level of goodwill as Beasts of the Southern Wild (another Sundance darling), expect Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, as well as a good deal of love at the Independent Spirit Awards.
The Upside: Coogler’s debut is a dramatically rich, superbly drawn drama which balances notions of family with the regrettable end to its tale. Performances across the board are uniformly excellent.
The Downside: The narrative occasionally feels affected for dramatic potency in places, and ironically feels less effective and convincing as a result.
On the Side: When it debuted at Sundance, Fruitvale Station had the shorter title of Fruitvale.