Fruitvale Station

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Fruitvale Station
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In the wee hours of New Year’s Day in San Francisco, a group of revelers are on their way home on the BART train back to Oakland. A scuffle breaks out and the train is stopped at a station. The transit police arrive on the frenetic scene and order those involved off the train. Events soon go ballistic and deadly at “Fruitvale Station.”

Robin:
First time feature film writer/director Ryan Coogler does a remarkable job in adapting the true life tragedy of 22-year old Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordon), who died at the hands of the BART transit police. Coogler begins the film with the actual phone video recording of the police abuse and the shooting of Oscar. Time jumps back a day to New Year’s Eve morning and Oscar is with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Oscar has had a tough life, in and out of prison, but he promises Sophina that he is a changed man. The camera follows him through this day, his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, as he prepares for the celebration set for later. He also makes plans with his friends to go into San Francisco for the fireworks display celebrating the New Year.

Michael B. Jordan gives a fully dimensioned, commanding performance and garners a great deal of sympathy for Oscar over the course of his last day on earth. Oscar is shown as a loving father, son and boyfriend in an environment dominated by women. His mom is concern about driving into the city late at night, causing Oscar to make a fateful decision. Knowing how his day will end, Oscar’s story leaves a queasiness in your stomach as you know you are watching him through his last hours of life. Olivia Spencer and Melonie Diaz are believably realized as Oscar’s family, though other characters are mostly two-dimensional.

Ryan Coogler does a remarkable thing with his first feature film. He makes it look like he has been in the business as a director for years. “Fruitvale Station” is a mature, well-paced and well-told but very sad story. I give it a B.

Laura:
December 31, 2008 was Oscar Grant's (Michael B. Jordan, "Chronicle," TV's 'Parenthood') mother's (Octavia Spencer, "The Help") birthday, a day for heartfelt resolutions and his last full day on earth.  After a BART train was stopped because of an on board fight after New Year's Eve partying, Oscar was one of several men taken off by BART officers, but one of them confused his revolver for his taser and fatally shot the unarmed man lying face down on the platform of "Fruitvale Station."

Writer/director Ryan Coogler makes an emotionally devastating feature film debut with this Sundance hit that is sure to leapfrog its star Michael B. Jordan closer to the A list. Yet for all its mastery of foreshadowing amidst the minutiae of daily life, Coogler and Jordan have sanctified their protagonist just a bit too much to make the film truly great.  A little more grit and a few more flaws would have carried this farther, but it travels far enough to transport and infuriate.

Wisely, Coogler begins his film with one of the many real life cell phone video captures of the shooting, setting the stage for the planned and random events of the day to take on more significance.  We meet Oscar as he gets up in his apartment with girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, "Raising Victor Vargas"), angry over a flirtation, and their four year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).  Oscar gets one off to work, the other to preschool, then sets out to buy crabs for his mother's birthday.  He stops at Farmer Joe's and helps a pretty young white woman (Ahna O'Reilly, "The Help") figure out how to do a proper fish fry with a call to Grandma Bonnie.  While his phone's in use, he begs his boss for his job back, but the position's already been filled.

We remember that that morning he'd resolved to get away from drugs, yet he calls an old contact to make a deal (Coogler makes the cell phone its own character, presaging its later importance, Oscar's phone contacts popping up as screen graphics).  On the way he stops for gas and befriends a stray pit bull, another creature who invites prejudice, looking for a chance but doled out a harsher and unwarranted, careless fate.  At the seashore, Oscar throws away one bag he's taken from his stash and gifts the rest to the man he's come to meet, unburdening himself of his past and temptation (and, amusingly thanks to Diaz, incurring Sophina's scorn at the financial loss when she finally learns he lost his job).  This setting also serves for contemplation, allowing a flashback which shows Oscar getting a tough love visit from his mother while in jail.

More eerie signifiers come as night falls and the Grant family gathers for celebration. Mom's the on who suggests Oscar take the BART into town to see the fireworks rather than risking driving drunk.  Oscar and his pals have a seemingly low key night, the main event convincing a shop owner to allow the women in to use his facilities (Oscar the chivalrous once more). Coogler will circle back to a prior act of chivalry to unwittingly set the evening's tragedy in motion adding a fictional layer of irony to the factual one.

The recreation of the shooting, where tough guy BART cop (Kevin Durand, "Real Steel," "Cosmopolis") begins the brutality verbally before a mousier younger cop (Chad Michael Murray, "House of Wax," TV's 'One Tree Hill') makes his hard-to-imagine mistake, is tense, almost a standoff between horrified onlookers on the train and the overbearing law while Sophina is held back on the street below, even as her man is taken away in an ambulance.

Jordan creates a likable, charming young man trying to atone for past mistakes, a character not unlike his year-long arc on 'Parenthood.'  One wishes he'd roughed Oscar's edges up a bit though, as it is hard to believe an ex-con wouldn't be burdened with more resentment, retain just a trace of attitude.  Support is solid across the board, especially in the strong female characters created by Spencer, Diaz, Marjorie Shears' granny and Neal's sweetheart of a little girl.

"Fruitvale Station" is a heartfelt consideration of the sanctity of one man's life, but it paints him a little too perfectly.

B+
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