Fruitvale Station (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Fruitvale Station,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is based on the murder of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), who left behind a wife and a daughter (Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal, respectively), in the hands of a transit officer while coming home from San Francisco after having welcomed the new year.
There is no easy way to tell Grant’s story but the writer-director proves up to the task. By narrowing the film’s focus within a few hours of the twenty-two-year-old’s death, he creates a sense of urgency and unease in just about every scene. The point of them, I think, is to create a panorama of an unfinished life. It makes the senseless killing all the more appalling and maddening.
The lead performance by Jordan and supporting work by Diaz and Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar’s mother, command attention. What the three performances have in common is that they are immediately people we know or can relate with. This is important because there is no conventional character arc designed for us to notice how a person changes over time. We know how the story will end and so the trick is to fill in the gaps with as many relevant details as possible. The screenplay’s approach is to give us a big picture of how Grant relates to those he loves.
Scenes between mother and son are balanced with honesty, pain, and tough love. Particularly impressive involves a flashback to Wanda visiting her son in prison in 2007. Wanda clearly does not want to be there but wants to be supportive nonetheless. When she sees her son lose his temper in front of a fellow inmate so easily, she is disappointed and tries to reel him in—this is supposed to be their time, not anyone else’s.
Spencer’s performance is restrained but calculated in that she does not have to act tough to come off tough. It appears as though she has chosen to rely on the history of the characters—details that are never shown on screen—as a template for us to gauge the chemistry of what the mother and son share. Equally good is Jordan. Take the same scene. Notice the way his eyes switch from rage to shame—the same shot, in a span of a second, no tricks—when his mother advises that he calm down. It becomes clear that these performances rely on each other in order for the scene to work.
Being from the Bay Area, I attest that the picture has managed to capture the rhythm and wavelength of the dialogue superbly. In addition, it presents minute detail not only in terms of what people wear but also in how they wear the clothes. It even gets the BART details right—like the shrill sound it makes when it approaches and leaves the station. As a result, there were times when I felt like I was watching a documentary, not a polished film.
“Fruitvale Station” offers a few stylistic details, like foreshadowing involving a dog, that do not always work but, as a whole, the performances are fresh and Coogler’s direction—an approach that is confident and straightforward—is solid despite a familiar framework.