Movie Review: Fruitvale Station- A Solid Debut Feature Slightly Debilitated by an Idealized Narrative but Effective in Minimalist Technical Choices and Careful Pacing

FRUITVALESeldom do we remember in our desensitized 24-hour news society that behind every headline, every momentary tragedy, and every affected victim there’s always a personable human story reveals the true layers of heartbreak once exposed for all to grasp, understand, and mourn. One example in particular of modern headline tragedy was the senseless, unwarranted shooting of 22-year old Oscar Grant by police officers at the Fruitvale BART station that reinvigorated a debate on prejudice and a call for civil rights that unfortunately lead to some violent protests in the aftermath. This heated headline event is the subject of 26-year old filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s debut feature entitled Fruitvale Station that is a relatively solid first film depicting the importance of family, the rarity of second chances, and the difficulty of responsibility leading up the inevitable heartbreaking event that is heavily dependent on performances rather than strong narrative substance. What’s meant by the word solid is that this isn’t an immaculate film without flaws and deserving of infinite praise because it contains a great deal of manipulative narrative tricks, an overly positive dramatization of its protagonist, and absolutely zero new insight on the societal issues involved or a genuine message to take away beyond its sad and rather plain recreation of actual events. Instead of delving deep into the obvious flaws of Oscar Grant, ranging from an ill temper, relationship cheating, and drug peddling, Coogler sets out to overly forgive these foibles making Grant a martyr instead of a palpable human being representing how no one deserves his tragic fate no matter their past, present, or potential future. However, Fruitvale Station does demonstrate that strong acting performances coupled with a careful execution of technical choices from a new energetic developing talent in Ryan Coogler can make an effective and emotional film. Most of the positives within the film are located in the light dramatic touch of the handheld camera work, the intimate settings, and the strong acting, especially a star turning performance from Michael B. Jordan who carries the tragic weight of the film on his shoulders. Though Coogler’s debut feature might possess an idealized portrayal of his film’s subject Oscar Grant as well as some blanketed assumptions on justice there is a great deal of admirable qualities that makes it a dramatically riveting and socially tragic depiction of true events.

Human portraits, especially those attempting to showcase a true living individual, are quite difficult to balance in their need for truthfulness and their desire to be cinematically dramatic. Immediately at the beginning of Fruitvale Station we’re introduced to one of the many phone recordings of the event that occurred at the BART Fruitvale platform that fateful New Year’s night giving the film that eerie foreshadowing that is most effective in its “what if” propositions given to Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) throughout the preceding day which the entire film takes place. What’s unfortunate is that the script written by Coogler seems intent on painting a positively dramatized and plainly simplistic depiction of Oscar Grant where his drastic faults, ranging from a flaring ill temper to relationship unfaithfulness to drug peddling to tardiness at work to an unexplained stint in prison, are all sugar coated manipulating us into forcefully sympathizing with an already sympathetic tale. Scenes including Oscar tending to an injured dog post-hit and run or aiding a stranger in her quest to complete a fish fry, a character that Coogler himself admits isn’t real suggesting some minor untruthfulness to the entire portrait, seem a bit transparent in their intention to make us see heart and warmth. But yet heart and warmth is what we see already see in Oscar in his ability to be a great father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), a forgiven son by his constantly worried mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), and a charming willing to change boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz). The scenes showing Oscar’s family life are the most inspiring and through the writing seem authentic and appropriately compassionate enough to allow the audience’s sensitivities to be linked to Oscar before his fate is met. What would have made Fruitvale Station stronger narratively is if it also had a conceptual undercurrent towards either a genuine reflection on human nature highlighting all of Oscar’s qualities, especially the crippling flaws, or an intriguing offering as to why such atrocities happen in society, but instead the story serves as just a relatively strong yet plain dramatization of true events. Coogler’s script does, however, show a positive portrait of black family life, the heartbreak of potential positive change, and the difficulty of living a responsible life without resorting to life’s least resistant paths, which does make it a solid drama that resists asking some conceptual questions and fails to give meaningful answers.

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It’s not uncommon for first time filmmakers to have some minor weaknesses in either writing or technicality so it was refreshing to see that where the narrative simplicity ends the poignant technicality that enhances the film’s emotional connection begins. Coogler takes a minimalist approach to capturing the last day of Oscar Grant’s life through a handheld visual collaboration with his cinematographer Rachel Morrison and translates it effectively with great pacing through the editing techniques by duel editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver. There is an intimacy to the scenes between Oscar and his family that Rachel Morrison’s camerawork heightens for dramatic connection and also compliments the script’s personal relation to the protagonist as the subject matter. Everything is handled with a skillful grace through Coogler’s direction and ultimately through the careful editing from Castello and Shawver who had the difficult task of balancing the humanist portrait and also the hectic events that occurred at the BART Fruitvale platform. The transition from slow paced drama in the confines of Oscar’s home life or even the joyousness of the New Year’s evening events in the city to the unnerving chaos in the subway car and the police involvement on the platform was difficult work but the editors guided by Coogler definitely kept the change seamless. It’s clear that Coogler has been influenced by earlier black centered dramatists such as The Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents), John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood), and definitely Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) and though Coogler has yet to find a style of his own he has utilized the steady camera technique quite effectively for the drama in Fruitvale Station. There aren’t any technical decisions that are meant to astonish through visual complexity so it’s refreshing to see a calmed, minimalist approach towards the drama and the foreboding tension building towards the carefully executed confusing, hectic, and senseless act committed on the Fruitvale station platform. Because of this appropriate observational choice it allowed the competent and talented cast the ample breathing room needed to engage the audience in their characters, their struggles, their perceptions, and ultimately their emotional reactions towards the fateful event.

Giving real people that delicate touch through acting where their actions, phrasings, and even beliefs feel genuine isn’t always easy to come by but it seems Coogler has found a great cast to aid in his dramatically emotional depiction of Oscar Grant.  Michael B. Jordan has the hardest task of portraying the flawed protagonist Oscar Grant but utilizes a combination of acting strengths he’s acquired in his past experiences on “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Parenthood.” Jordan is practically reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington where his ability to portray toughness mixed with frailty gives his interpretation of Oscar Grant a greatly sympathetic touch. Without his presence in the film Fruitvale Station would have lost whatever sense of truthfulness it contained because his erratic emotions coupled with sensitivity keeps everything from the intimate family sequences to the tragic events on the platform grounded in reality. Accompanying Jordan is a great cast of characters that give him some great dramatic cues especially his chemistry with the young Ariana Neal playing Oscar’s daughter Tatiana that essentially becomes Oscar’s sole purpose for living, carrying on, and vowing to become a better person. Octavia Spencer earns her accredited Academy Award win all throughout the film as the poignant, tough love mother Wanda making everything from her self-blame to her devoted worrying land on target emotionally. Rounding off Oscar’s family influences is Melonie Diaz as the hot-blooded Latina who loves Oscar in spite of his flaws that have affected her and their daughter Tatiana for almost too long. Even though the Coogler’s script has some superficiality to the depiction of events and resists asking relevant questions or positing essential answers there is a great humanity inside its frames due to the great relationships he’s written for his actors who portray them with emotional depth and believable subtlety.

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Tackling a sensitive headline topic such as the senseless shooting of 22-year old Oscar Grant demands not only a great understanding of the truth in relation to the events but it also requires social responsibility in how those events are depicted. It seems clear that even though most of the situations are captured with a graceful even hand there is a distinct biasness that seeps through the narrative cracks in the idolization and martyrdom of Oscar Grant instead of truthfully portraying his drastic faults. Just because a man isn’t perfect or has severe trouble getting his responsibilities in life in order doesn’t mean he deserves the fate that Oscar Grant received any more than someone who is immaculate, innocent, and honest. For a debut feature Fruitvale Station shows the promise of a filmmaker on par with a young John Singleton who knows how to depict particular issues, customs, and culture of black livelihood in America but also shows a filmmaker who needs growth in narrative subtlety and molding his own cinematic style. There are admirable strengths throughout Fruitvale Station in the minimalist cinematography, the tenuous buildup of the editing, and the phenomenal performances making it a solid debut feature with some debilitating weaknesses in its manipulative demands on perceiving the faults of its protagonist as non-existent. Without any substantial attempt at bringing a societal message of violence or a deep reflection on prejudice or asking relevant questions pertaining to why such events happen Fruitvale Station will remain a strong yet simple retelling of tragic events that gives us only some mild insight behind the headlines.

Grade: B+

This film will be released July 12th

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