One of the big successes at Sundance this year was Fruitvale which was snapped up by The Weinstein Company, renamed Fruitvale Station and instantly became “the Sundance film that’s going to cross over and make an Oscar run.” Following a similar trajectory to recent films like Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild, it has also parlayed its success to a slot at Cannes where it will doubtless ride the wave to bigger and better things to come. The lead character is even named Oscar! Convenient! Call me a cynic, but I tend to be instantly skeptical of these heavily buzzed sensations. They rarely live up to the advanced hype, but Fruitvale Station is a most welcome exception to the rule. It’s the real deal and not the last time we’ll here from star-in-the-making Michael B. Johnson.
Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station begins with cell phone footage of the fatal 2009 New Year’s shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART Police officer following an altercation on the subway. It then flashes back to show us who Oscar was while filling in the key events leading up to the fatal moment.
Making his feature debut, writer/director Ryan Coogler clearly wants to gain the audiences sympathies in his portrayal of Oscar, but he wisely avoids turning the man into a saint. Oscar is shown to be sensitive and compassionate, but he’s also got many rough edges. He’s been in trouble with the law more than once, is temperamental and unpredictable and is even shown to have been unfaithful to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), the mother of his little daughter. Oscar is far from perfect, but he’s very human and this makes his ultimate fate all the more devastating when the story comes back around.
The knock against the film from the few so far who haven’t bought it seems to be that it’s an exercise in audience manipulation which is what people always say when for whatever reason they weren’t successfully manipulated. Most films seek to push their audience’s buttons in one way or another.
Whatever one makes of the story, you can’t deny the star power of Michael B. Jordan. I never saw him during his run on TV’s Friday Night Lights, but I’m told he was a standout and I can believe it. His turn as the mercurial Oscar grabs your attention and holds it from beginning to end. Also excellent is Octavia B. Spencer who, as Oscar’s beleaguered mother, is finally given a relatively high profile part worthy of her talents. Asked to play basically a cartoon in the infuriating The Help, here she gets to sink her teeth into a real human being and she’s great. It’s also time for Melonie Diaz to break out. At 29, she’s been terrific in a string of independent films stretching back a better part of a decade. In a just and rational world, Fruitvale Station would launch her to the next echelon.