I really do hate to have to be the one to throw cold water on the love fest going on with Fruitvale Station. There’s certainly plenty to admire here and the story is admittedly quite powerful. On top of that, I’m fair confident that this is going to be a solid awards player all season long. Still, I know what I saw, and this is 100% a flawed film and one I don’t actually think is completely worthy of a recommendation. There are fine performances all around in the story of Oscar Grant, highlighted by the trio of Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, and Melanie Diaz, along with impassioned (if sometimes uneven) direction by filmmaker Ryan Coogler, but it’s far from a perfect movie. Besides taking a somewhat questionable approach with the material, Coogler isn’t able to give us the human look at a victim of tragedy that he’s obviously hoping to. While he’s obviously not made into a demon and isn’t exactly made into an angel either, Coogler makes Grant far more of a cinematic creation than an actual person, which makes the climax, while emotional, feel a bit manipulative. Throw in an unnecessary final scene set earlier this year and it really confirms my feeling that this movie would have been better served as a documentary instead of a biopic.
The story depicts the final day in the life of 22 year old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant (Jordan). For those of you who don’t know, Grant was shot in the back and killed by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer at the Fruitvale Station train stop after a fight on New Year’s when the officer mistook his pistol for a taser. Grant’s death led to community outrage and activism/protests that continue to this day. For those worried that this is a spoiler, the film begins with the cell phone camera footage of the incident, so it’s all on front street. From there, we transition to the morning of the last day of Oscar’s life. He wakes up feeling like today is a day to make changes, including being better to his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) and their young son. He’s gotten out of prison and is struggling, losing a supermarket job for being late and dealing as well as smoking marijuana. It’s also the day the of his birthday of his mother Wanda (Spencer), so Oscar needs to gather some stuff for a party later on. Along the way, he crosses paths with all sorts of folks over the course of the day, be them friends, relatives, strangers, and even enemies. Of course, being as it’s New Year’s Eve as well, he plans to go see the fireworks, though Wanda asks him to be safe and take the BART instead of driving. That decision will obviously have a ripple effect, so it’s just a matter of waiting for the tragedy to happen.
There’s no denying that Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Oscar Grant. Jordan gives charismatic life to the man, making him someone you feel like you know. Yes, it’s a strong enough performance to warrant awards consideration, as he’s best in show, though I think it’s probably too competitive a field to push him through to a nomination at the Oscars. As good as Jordan is, Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer are nearly as strong. Diaz is on screen longer than Spencer, but the latter has the baitier part than the former. Both are top notch though and deserve their high praise. No one else in the cast is especially noteworthy, though Chad Michael Murray is wasted as the fateful BART cop who pulls the trigger on Oscar. This is all about Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer, with Jordan especially impressing with his work.
Ryan Coogler is without a doubt a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, but I’m not sold on him from this one movie. Both in terms of his writing and direction, Coogler wants to take his audience by the hand and show them exactly how to feel at each turn. He’s also unable to truly not put Grant up on a pedestal. While he’s honest enough in admitting the man’s flaws, he’s also quick to show a counterpoint. I honestly believe that a softer sell would have worked, since repeatedly showing us that every single moment of this day involved some event that profoundly affected the man and drove him to be better is a bit hard to believe. Especially when he saves a dog hit by a car, it just screams artifice. During the third act, he seems to be off and on interested in getting at the issue of police brutality and why Oscar died, but he doesn’t seem to know how to work that in smoothly, and it shows. Aside from that, Coogler has a solid ear for dialogue as a writer and can effectively wrangle tears as a director (yes, I cried), it’s just when he speculates or outright resorts to cinematic contrivances to drive home his point that he loses me. My only other directorial issue is the way he chooses to show Oscar’s cell phone usage. He superimposes his texts on the screen, which feels cheap and is distracting. Coogler may very well make a masterpiece one day soon, but this isn’t it.
Awards-wise, I think this film is likely headed towards an Academy Award nomination or two. Best Original Screenplay for Coogler seems the likeliest bet, though I’m sure it’ll contend for Best Picture as well. Best Actor for Jordan is a long shot merely due to the competition, and the same goes for Best Director, though I have my doubts that enough voters will want to honor Coogler this soon in that category. The other place to look for Fruitvale Station to contend is in Best Supporting Actress, where Diaz and Spencer are worthy players, though the latter is the one with the name recognition to compete. Depending on how it fares during the season, the movie is in play for anywhere from one to five citations.
Overall, the bits of Fruitvale Station that don’t work merely make me think of what a great documentary this would have been, especially in regard to victim rights. Keeping the filmmaker from being able to manipulate and dramatize would have made this more about the issue itself, as opposed to running the risk of sermonizing, which the movie can’t avoid doing at the very end. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, and I wasn’t buying that. This is a decent enough film, but it’s not without flaws and while I understand the strong acclaim that it’s received, I don’t agree with it. I’d never say that you should avoid this flick, but I’m not outwardly recommending it and caution that some of you should lower your expectations. What might have seemed better in a festival environment shows chinks in its armor outside of that particular realm. The parts of the film that are good are very good, but the package as a whole left me wanting more…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!