Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 85 minutes
At the Q&A session after a screening of Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler said that he felt more connected to characters whose lives unfolded over mere hours, versus characters whose lives take up decades on the big screen. This take on time and character is the driving force behind Coogler's writing and directing debut, which took the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. By keeping his 85-minute film's focus largely on a few hours of his protagonist's life, Coogler achieves an intimacy and power that would have likely been diluted had he tried to expand the scope. Fruitvale Station (originally titled Fruitvale) is more than just a remarkable debut. It's a beautiful film about life and second chances that feels like the work of a socially conscious veteran filmmaker.
Moments of Fruitvale Station may be embellished or even entirely made up, but the film opens with the blunt truth: cell-phone footage of 22 year-old Oscar Grant III (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan), being violently abused, and subsequently shot to death, by police at a train station. The footage is heavily pixelated, but its impact is undeniable. With this key moment out of the way, Coogler then rewinds, and jumps into Grant's life in the hours leading up to that fateful incident on New Year's Day.
What Coogler accomplishes with his take on Grant's final hours is a deeply human treatment of his subject without turning him into a saint. Even with the inevitability of Grant's death established at the outset, Coogler and his talented cast create an atmosphere that, for all of its narrative ups and downs, is a celebration of life. Jordan, best known for his work on the acclaimed TV series The Wire and Friday Night Lights, delivers a star-making, naturalistic performance as Grant. A young man capable of extreme tenderness and spontaneous rage, Oscar clearly wants to turn his life around (a brief flashback informs us that he was once imprisoned).
As he suffers both setbacks (his boss' refusal to rehire him at the local supermarket) and minor triumphs (his relationship with his daughter), Coogler avoids the one pitfall that could have sunk his film. Rather than hammer home Oscar's upcoming death at every turn, Fruitvale Station remains life-affirming even when Oscar fails. Take away the story's tragic end, and what remains is a simple (but not simplistic) and effective character portrait, told with smart efficiency. With straightforward camera-work and direction, the film is emotional, without ever becoming cloying. Coogler's script may not go to the absolute depths of Oscar's negative traits, but he still manages to give a sense of fully understanding his complex protagonist.
And even though the film is all about Oscar, Coogler never simplifies the people he interacts with. We may not have quite the same level of interaction with Oscar's girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), or his mother (Octavia Spencer), but they exist as more than mere sounding boards to show us another angle of Oscar's personality. It's a credit to both Coogler and Diaz that Sophina comes off as a compassionate and understandable character, rather than a stereotypical shrill girlfriend. Sophina rarely cuts Oscar slack, but it comes from a place of tough (at, at times, very frustrated) love, rather than lazy one-note bitchy antagonism.
Yet it's Spencer who nearly runs away with the film in her minimal screen time. In the aforementioned prison flashback, the actress is able to communicate a detailed and textured relationship with her son. The inherent mother-child love is there, but so is the conflict and dismay at some of his decisions. In a film that, out of necessity, is mostly focused on one character, Spencer's vital supporting turn is packed with tiny moments and nuances that elevate it miles above a stock mother character. Compassionate, yet never manipulative or histrionic, Spencer is as much the heart of the film as Oscar.
When it comes to the death of Oscar Grant, issues of race and racial profiling are necessary aspects of the conversation. For Coogler, however, the intent appears to be less about throwing up a middle finger to unjust profiling so much as it is to celebrate the lives of people who, for all of their faults, are trying their hardest to better themselves and make their way in life. Even when the film's recreation of the New Year's Day shooting arrives, Coogler smartly refuses to slip into heavy-handed political sermonizing. As overly aggressive as the train station police officers are, they are never turned into mindless thugs or mustache-twirling villains, even as they remain the guilty party.
Fruitvale Station clearly has the power to lend some texture to discussions on modern day race and racism, yet the film is mature enough to function completely outside of that realm as well. Whether it's taken as nothing more than a tragic character study, or as a statement on the way snap-judgements and profiling dehumanize certain segments of the population, Coogler's film is a standout debut, one whose Sundance hype appears to have been fully justified.