Synopsis: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: There’s little doubt as to how December 31, 2008 will end for Oscar Grant…we’re shown the actual footage of the shooting at the hands of a police officer that led to his death before the first five minutes of Fruitvale Station have elapsed. For a movie that starts and ends with death it says something that you come away with powerful thoughts on your own life and the path that we’re all on.
One of the most buzzed about films at the recent Sundance Film Festival, I’d already read a lot about Fruitvale Station, the family that the film was based on, and the journey the movie took to the screen. Being released at the tail end of a very busy but not totally memorable summer movie season was a bold move of counter-programming and I think that the film was timed right for audiences that were ready to put aside overblown superheroes and frat boy comedies for a more serious movie-going experience.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler favors efficiency over showmanship with a script filled with scenes that pull no punches and a reserved directing hand that guides his actors to strong performances. It would have been easy to paint Oscar Grant as a tragic hero but Coogler and Michael B. Jordan let the flaws show…giving way to a leading performance that’s honest and grounded. Oscar had run-ins with the law and dealt with problems that many inner-city youth face and if he had lived maybe things would have changed or maybe they would have stayed the same…but the tragedy of it all was that we’ll never know what could have been.
As a young father, the movie really crackles when Jordan and the mother of his daughter (Melonie Diaz…another vastly underrated actor) have moments of anger and intimacy over the course of the day. Their relationship may have had its ups and downs but these two people understand each other…which makes the disappointments hurt that much more. Same goes for Oscar’s relationship with his mother (stoic Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer). In a powerhouse flashback, Oscar’s mother visits him in jail and delivers a galvanizing tough love speech, proving that Spencer’s Academy Award was no fluke.
If I had to quibble with the film (and, let’s face it, I have to quibble with something) it’s that perhaps the 24 hours we spend with Oscar Grant seem a bit too packed with forward-motion developments. By the time he boards the train that will lead him to the Fruitvale Station platform he seems to have figured out a lot of things like work, love, and future plans. It makes the tragedy to come that much more painful but also seems like a small manipulation in a film that has eschewed any easy outs until that point.
I was surprised that when the reenactment of those final moments came how much of a gut-punch it actually was to watch. We know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen the camera footage 80 minutes prior…yet by this time we’ve gotten to know the man who died that day. We’ve met his daughter, visited his mother for her birthday, watched him care for a wounded dog….so to see him cut down in such a way is chilling and numbing.
Aside from any award recognition this will garner (expect Oscar nominations for Jordan and Spencer), the movie is a testament to the influence of restrained direction and committed performances. It’s a motion picture that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater and had the chance to hug your loved ones. When you do, chances are you’ll be like me and remember Oscar Grant, his death, and the family that misses him.