Fruitvale Station Review

Posted: September 22, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Fruitvale-Station-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Fruitvale Station is a movie I’ve been waiting to see for weeks without actually having too high expectations. It started in the summer when the film started slowly expanding to more and more cities. Whenever the major releases for a week didn’t interest me, I would hope that it might be the week my theater would finally get Fruitvale Station. It’s not that I thought the movie looked amazing, in fact my expectations were pretty modest, but the film at least looked interesting, serious and like the people involved really believed in what they were making. That alone made it stand out from the 2 Guns and We’re the Millers of the world. I never did see Fruitvale in the summer, but my patience paid off in September when a local theater finally had the film.

In the early morning of January 1st, 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a police officer at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, California. Fruitvale Station looks dramatizes the last day of Grant’s life, with dialogue and a brief flashback helping to illustrate the life he lived and what brought him to this point. When the story begins, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is a former convict who’d previously done time at San Quentin for drug dealing. However he is now released and trying to set his life right. This includes setting his relationship with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) right, getting his old job back, and deciding what to do with his last bag of weed from his drug dealing ways. Throughout the day, Grant also plans his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday dinner as well as New Year’s celebration with friends. Throughout the film, Oscar’s tender and loving relationship with his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) remains core to everything.

Probably my biggest concern going into Fruitvale Station was that the film would present an unrealistically noble portrayal of Oscar in order to gain maximum sympathy from the audience. Thankfully this isn’t really the case. Though the emphasis is definitely on Oscar’s positive traits, the negative aspects of his personality are shown as well and the film acknowledges that this is a man who has made some mistakes. Overall, the view on Oscar is undeniably biased, but I feel an effort was made by both Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler to portray Oscar as honestly as possible.

Speaking of Michael B. Jordan, the man gives a great performance in this. Oscar Grant was a man of many facets; a former criminal, a loving father, a man trying to struggle in a difficult time, a guilty sin, etc. Point is he was a lot of different things and for an actor to pull all of those things off believably is quite the challenge, a challenge amplified by the fact that Jordan is in almost every frame of the film. However Jordan excels in the role, nailing every part of the character and selling every emotional beat. Jordan makes Oscar both extremely likable and human. The performance is actually a breakthrough for Jordan. I remember liking him in Chronicle, but I never expected a performance like this from him.

The supporting cast is quite good as well. Octavia Spencer has been getting the most attention for her turn as Oscar’s concerned mother. She’s very good in the film, particularly towards the end when she has to handle some very heavy material. Melonie Diaz is also very good as Oscar’s girlfriend who shows both frustration and love for Oscar. Young actress Ariana Neal also does a good job as Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana. It’s not an amazing child performance but she’s very natural and likable without being precocious. The rest of the cast is made up of no names but everyone gives solid and authentic work.

Fruitvale Station is the debut film from writer/director Ryan Coogler and he shows quite a bit of promise. The film is shot in the handheld style which helps boost the film’s authentic vibe. His script also has some solid dialogue. His script does have some issues though, particularly some lines which come off like on the nose references to Oscar’s fate. The realistic style of the film also clashes with the sheer volume of things that happen to him in the day. Is it possible that Oscar met several new people, tied up his drug dealing days, set things straight with his girlfriend, had a profound experience with an animal, put his life on a positive course, and in general went through a complete character arc? I guess, but I doubt it. Granted, all of this material is technically handled well, but their general inclusion does more harm than good.

I was ready to declare Fruitvale Station a good film but not great, and then we get to the climax, which was one of the most intense and moving experiences I’ve had in a theater all year. The scene is incredibly tense and at times hard to watch. The audience I was with felt similar and you could tangibly feel the scene’s power throughout the theater. The scene is a testament to both Jordan’s performance, and Coogler’s direction both for the execution of the scene itself and for how invested he got everyone in the story.

Fruitvale Station is far from perfect, but it’s a very engaging, well made, and emotional story that took me back. There may not be anything challenging about the material (would anyone really argue that Oscar deserved to be shot?), but it is an important story and I’m glad it was told by such a talented group who I hope continue to find success. This the kind of film that I can see getting buried once Oscar season hits, but Fruitvale Station is a very strong work that is worth seeking out.

A-

Comments
  1. Mr Rumsey says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, I may well seek this out now!

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Fine review of a film I really want to see, Daniel.

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