This movie has been all the rage on the film festival circuit (Sundance and Cannes). Many critics have predicted that this is the year’s first real Oscar contender. FRUITVALE STATION is based on a true incident that happened at a train station in Oakland in 2008. Since I don’t read current events or watch the news, I had no clue what happened, so watching the story unfold was a complete surprise for me. Some of you may know what happened, but if you don’t. I would recommend not looking anything up on it. This is a good movie to go in cold on.
The movie is essentially a day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old black man living in the bay area in California. He is a former criminal trying to get his life back in order. His relationship with his girlfriend Sophina is a little shaky, but Oscar is trying to be faithful to her. They also have a young daughter together, whom he loves very much. During the film, we see Oscar go about his day as he tries to get his job at the grocery store back (he was fired for being constantly late), dumping a bag of weed in the Ocean (he’s trying to go straight), and pick up his daughter from daycare. That night (new year’s eve), Oscar, Sophina and some friends take the train to watch the fireworks. But something on board happens that will change their lives forever.
It’s hard to talk about the movie without saying what specifically happened, but I’m going to try. This isn’t a movie that grabs you by the throat, it’s one that sneaks up on you and gets under your skin. For the first hour of the movie, the viewer is pretty much a fly on the wall as Oscar does his daily routine. But it’s never dull or boring. This was a fantastic approach because we as an audience become completely invested in Oscar and his family. He’s not a perfect person. He’s had a troubled past, but because he seems to be making an effort to better himself, we begin to root for him. This makes the last act of the film all the more effective. This is one of those films that you see with someone and have a conversation about. It’s a message movie, but it’s not like CRASH. No. That movie was about as subtle as a fucking freight train. This is a quiet, moving film that doesn’t cram morals down your throat.
The performances by the main cast are fantastic. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, and it’s because of his work here that we like the character so much. He brings a certain tenderness to the role, as well as a certain strength. This guy is determined to change his life and Jordan plays every aspect of the character with lots of care. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer has a small but very pivital role as Oscar’s mother. She has a scene in the movie that could cause her to get nominated for her second Oscar. Kevin Durand is memorable for only being on-screen for a few minutes as a hard-ass cop. But the real heart of the movie for me was Melonie Diaz as Sophina. She is a strong character who can’t afford to be vulnerable. Diaz has that certain tough beauty that I admire. And she has to do some heavy lifting in the last act of the film that blew me away. Wonderful performance.
First time director Ryan Coogler has made quite an accomplishment here. It’s a powerful film. And the reason I believe it’s so powerful is that he doesn’t let the filmmaking draw any attention to itself. A lot of it is handheld, but it’s not distracting in any way. It feels real. Like you’re actually there. There’s no fancy editing tricks, or complicated camera work. Instead, his approach is calm and intimate… and it really works! I became so involved with everything happening that I forgot I was watching a movie. I was experiencing Oscar’s life. And that, I feel, is something hard to achieve. So bravo to Mr. Coogler.
The script has a very straight forward approach (with the exception of a flashback or two when Oscar was in jail). I loved how we were shown what Oscar did that day before the famous incident. This gave the film a certain authenticity. I also believe that this will be a hard movie for some people to watch. It gets pretty emotionally intense. I know I cried more than once. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I loved it. It was a perfect way to end the movie. Probably one of the most emotionally wrenching endings I’ve seen in a while.
In a summer full of explosions it’s always refreshing to have something like this come out. FRUITVALE STATION is not only an important movie. It’s also very well made, well written and features some of the best performances of the year. It’s an authentically raw motion picture that I won’t soon forget. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
– Running time: 1hr 24min