Going into a movie like Fruitvale Station, the excellent new release by first time writer-director Ryan Coogler, there is always a bit of uneasiness. Is it going to be overly sentimental in chronicling the tragic true story? How is the young director (26 years old during filming) going to handle such subject matter, especially him being basically the same age as the subject? Is it going to fall into the same fate as other vastly underwhelming Sundance movies? How is the similar subject matter to a very current issue going to impact the viewing? Luckily for us, in this case, the results are all aces. This is one of the most haunting and important movies of the year.
Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22 year old Bay area man who is trying to find his place in the world. On New Year’s Eve 2008, Oscar tries to start anew. The whole day is leading up to his mother’s (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) birthday party later that night, and then a night on the town in San Francisco with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and friends. During the day, he has several encounters with people he knows and doesn’t know, each one of which helps shape Oscar and makes him want to be a better boyfriend and son, as well as father to his 4 year old daughter. It is on the way to Frisco is where that fateful New Year’s would hit its boiling point. The intensity rises in the characters and in the film itself. After that, it does not and cannot let up.
What makes the film click is clearly Michael B. Jordan, who audiences will most recognize from The Wire (arguable the best and most relatable part of Season 1), Friday Night Lights, and maybe even Chronicle. This is his crowning achievement, though. He has an effortless charisma and screen presence. He can make the ordinary seem captivating, and I could have watched him drive around and meet people for several more hours than the film allows. He is the real deal and a surefire Oscar contender. His supporting cast is just that: supporting. Octavia Spencer turns in a memorable and very awards-friendly performance as Oscar’s mother. Melonie Diaz is always nice to see, even if she never really gets credit for her strong acting. Chad Michael Murray and Kevin Durand make their single scene one of the most wrenching and frustrating scenes I have come across.
The movie has this aura about it that is hard to describe. From the opening cell phone clip of what would turn out to be the climax of the film until that part comes up in real time, there is an intensity that is unlike any other in such a straight indie drama. There are random occurrences that feel offbeat, and we think something is about to go down, but it just keeps going along. Something looks very sketchy, but it seemingly means nothing. The film just keeps suspending the drama, refusing to let the movie fall into the thriller category because it would take away from the impact. It is this aspect that actually makes it one of the grittier and more anxious movies around.
The obvious thing going for this movie and against it is the similarity to the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. Some parts of the movie feel a bit eerie because of this, but it never takes away from what the film is trying to accomplish. The film does not really place blame on any individual person or group, but it certainly thinks that Oscar was a near saint. He may have been. He may actually have been trying to right every wrong in his life on that very day, but I am sure that Coogler took more than a few liberties from the actual events to intensify that. Even though I was well aware of that while watching, I still cannot deny how well handled the climactic scenes were. They were messy, frantic, and difficult to see or understand. We are like one of the many passers-by who were as shocked, confused, outraged, and horrified as we are watching Coogler’s version of the story’s gut-punch of a conclusion.
If I were to compare this movie to something, it would have to be a mix of several movies. There is definitely some The Wrestler in how Oscar is treated and followed around by Coogler’s careful camera. That also almost reminds of the films of the Dardenne brothers. There are parts of it that will definitely bring to mind Gus Van Sant’s Milk. There is a bit of Crash in there, as well as A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. The movie has a style all of its own, though. I have never really experienced a movie where so little happens, yet so much happens. The film is a passion project, and that is shown in the performances and the emotions coming out of the audience. The trailer for this film makes it seem like a claustrophobic thriller, but that part is such a small part of the movie. It is about something so much bigger, more important, and more lingering. It is a special little movie (under $1 million budget) and one that will likely spark conversations and intrigue throughout the country. Its place in today’s world is even further heightened by its timeliness and clear message. It does not mess around. It knows what it wants to say, and it says it well. You have to respect that in a movie.
Rating: 3.5 stars