"Fruitvale Station" Leaves Tough Questions Unanswered

“Fruitvale Station” is a film of two distinct layers – one deeply personal, the other wholly public. This duality allows each audience member to decide what he or she wants to take from the experience. And while its two halves never coalesce into a complete whole, it’s a worthy effort thanks to some fine performances and a breathless third act that expertly captures the horror of personal loss. Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer are particularly good in the film, and it’s likely that they’ll receive some awards season attention for their work here.

Above all else, the project – based on a true story – is a sociopolitical commentary on race and police brutality. Writer-director Ryan Coogler isn’t simply making a movie. He’s making a statement. From the chaotic opening cell phone footage (presumably genuine; not re-enacted), it’s clear that the stakes are higher than just one man’s life. Something terrible happened on an Oakland subway platform in the early hours of January 1st, 2009. And from Coogler’s perspective, it was indicative of a much larger societal problem that begins with inborn prejudice and ends with a flawed judicial system.

Alternatively, “Fruitvale Station” is a startlingly private look into the last day of a man’s life, full of mundane but vaguely ominous goings-on that are relatable on a fundamentally human level – especially the ultimate grief of his family. Oscar Grant (Jordan) is a troubled 22 year-old black male, newly unemployed and caught up in dope slinging, but trying to make good on his potential for the sake of his daughter and ever-steadfast mother (Spencer). His girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), is stuck between these two sides of Oscar’s life, seemingly unsure of their future together but devoted to the idea of the man he could be.

The first two acts follow Oscar, Sophina, and their daughter as they spend an ostensibly normal New Year’s Eve following their regular routine – trips to day care, work, and a gas station where Oscar befriends a lost dog with whom he shares more in common than he’ll ever know. While some of these individual scenes are relatively engrossing, much of it feels like Coogler is padding his running time, one that ultimately falls short of 90 minutes.

That the narrative is so obviously embellished isn’t a problem in and of itself. I just wish it had been embellished better. Though the running time is brisk, the film feels much longer than it is and lacks the necessary tension to keep viewers engaged throughout. A brief flashback to Oscar’s prison tenure is more of a detour than an essential piece of the story – we already know about Oscar’s trouble with the law – and when the scene becomes relevant near the pic’s climax, it’s a level of coincidence that’s hard to swallow.

Coogler’s implication that the shooting of Oscar Grant III was racially motivated is clear, but he does nothing to further explore why it happened. To not give the perpetrator any further attention for his crime (he was convicted of manslaughter) is a respectable choice, but it leaves nearly all of the film’s questions unanswered. More troubling is that Oscar, as written here, is a muddled blend of upstanding family man and drug dealer that cheats on his girlfriend. Perhaps the real Oscar Grant was as much of a mystery, but on a dramatic level, the character is difficult to figure.

However, that we feel for Oscar and his family as much as we do is evidence of the success of Coogler’s third act staging and Michael B. Jordan’s heartfelt performance. That Octavia Spencer is as good as she’s ever been only solidifies the pic’s emotional impact. “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t entirely work from a sociopolitical angle, but as a personal ode to a family that suffered a very sudden and shocking loss, it’s fairly gripping and occasionally heart-wrenching. The docudrama shooting style goes a long way in selling the material, and at just 26 years old, it’s clear that Ryan Coogler is a talent to watch.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 12, 2013 (limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
MPAA Rating: R (for some violence, language throughout and some drug use)