The based-on-a-true story “Fruitvale Station” is very much 2013’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – a first time director, Ryan Coogler, taking Cannes Film Festival by storm following a world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, with an impressive awards-worthy performance from a rising star. And please Academy, award Michael B. Jordan with that Oscar nomination like you did for Quvenzhane Wallis.
An intimate film like “Fruitvale Station” rises and falls with its lead, and Jordan is hugely successful in holding us captive as we follow a day in the life of Oscar Grant (Jordan), a young man who was subjected to police brutality in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009.
The film starts at the end, with actual footage captured on people’s cell phones from the chaotic scene at the Fruitvale Station of the Bay Area’s BART system. As we move back in time to the early hours of New Year’s Eve 2008, it becomes a character study, a look at a young man who had spent time in prison and was dealing drugs, had recently lost his job and cheated on his girlfriend, but had also realized that he needed to make a change in his life. It often felt a little on the nose – that one man could have decided to change his life so dramatically right before a terrible event were to happen to him feels a little unrealistic (at one point, Oscar symbolically sits with a dying dog during his final moments before going on to throw a large amount of marijuana in to the ocean) – but it is the talent of Jordan that stops this from becoming too contrived.
Also starring are Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother Wanda and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend Sophina, and both turn in impressive, emotionally powerful performances, particularly Diaz as she tries to find out just what is happening up on the station platform after she is ushered outside without Oscar. But this truly is Jordan’s film, and he brings Grant to life in every scene, whether it’s secretly giving his daughter the extra treat she wanted or during a tense argument with an ex-employer.
Coogler also impresses with his first feature film. This was a story that needed telling, and Coogler has done so in a mostly quiet, collected way. There are no histrionics to add unnecessary tension, and Coogler makes the most of his brilliant cast, bringing Oscar Grant and the actions of the BART police force to life in a respectful but honest way.