Anticipation was at a boiling point for Ryan Coogler’s highly regarded Fruitvale Station. Its run thus far through the festival circuit has been most impressive. It kicked off the year with promise with a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. In Park City, the film won the Audience and Grand Jury Prize. It continued its run at Cannes, nabbing the Un Certain Regard prize. All in the midst of this, the direction and screenplay by Coogler along with high praise for lead Michael B. Jordan and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer poured in. Fortunately, the film lives up to its hype in most regards.
The Weinstein Company has a keen eye for emotionally charged tales that can enlighten and even sometimes break the human spirit. Coogler demonstrates a high quality of directorial efforts, especially for a first timer. He manages to maneuver through the picture intimately, keeping the audience close. He introduces the young Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), flawed and human, but unfortunately forced and pushed in spots. As the film opens up with the title card, “Based on a True Story,” Coogler sets an expectation of honest storytelling that we are intended to not to ring false. As stated, Oscar is presented as a flawed human. Drug dealing, lack of responsibility, even when loving his daughter, and a strong sense of abandonment. He’s enabled by his girlfriend and mother of his daughter Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and shows no actual signs of life changing behavior. The film tells the story of his final 24 hours on New Year’s Eve and while Coogler accepts the bad, he tries exceedingly hard to show the good. What makes it frustrating are these instances of “good” tend to ring false. They don’t feel authentic nor genuine rather a mere put on to reassure the audience the kind to ensure the mourn and loss of the Bay Area 22-year-old. Perhaps using the title card, “Inspired By a True Story” may have served a better purpose. On its own merit, the film is quite staggering and very timely with other stories from the U.S. soil of similar nature. If we’re looking to take this entire story to heart, we have to abandon a certain amount of realism, something audiences may not be particularly comfortable with.
What stands tall above any technical or screenwriting aspect is the astounding and harrowing work of Michael B. Jordan. An efficient and gifted actor, Jordan taps into the human spirit, capable and willing to bare his soul. While he can easily disappear into predictable speeches and stereotypes, Jordan allows Oscar a second chance at redemption on an internal level. He paints a no nonsense aura on character revelations or lack thereof. There’s no real sense of betterment such as constructing a five-year plan to get off the street – his actions remain guided through crime, poverty, and young-minded antics that can drive any older generation crazy. More importantly, there’s a sincere clarity that Michael B. Jordan achieves from beginning to end. Raw and proficient in delivery, his performance places him near the top of the most exciting actors to watch.
Co-stars Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz are effective, emotional, and transparent in their character’s motivations. Spencer moonlights as the maternal presence in Oscar’s life. Setting a sense of authority that he so often rebels from but desperately needs. Diaz is head over heels in love. Young, misguided at times but shadowing a clear sense of hope for Oscar’s needed epiphany.
One thing that cannot be denied is Coogler’s strong control of his film’s direction. He holds a firm hand on his story, capturing wondrous and affectionate emotions from his characters. Family dinners, birthday celebrations, and the beauty of racing your daughter to the finish line. It’s one of the most impressive first outings for a young director since Benh Zeitlin. I look forward to future works from the young African-American writer/director.
Though problematic in some structural aspects, Fruitvale Station is still emotionally resonate and very well could have the toughest of movie watchers in near tears. A sure-fire awards contender in 2013.
The film is now opened in limited release.