August 05, 2013

MOVIES: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

A remarkably strong first film, based on the true story of Oscar Grant, who was killed by an Oakland transit cop at a train station early on New Year's Day 2009.

Coogler follows Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) through his final day, and it's a very ordinary day. Wake up, squabble with girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), take daughter to pre-school, shop for groceries, flirt with pretty girl at the fish counter, go to Mom's birthday party, drop kid off with her aunt so that you and girlfriend can go out for New Year's Eve. About the only thing that won't feel run-of-the-mill for most viewers is the scene in which Oscar arranges to sell some pot to a friend, and Coogler makes sure to emphasize that Oscar is trying to get out of that part of his life.

And through no fault of Coogler, the very ordinariness of that day makes the movie's first hour a little dull. There's nothing terribly interesting or dramatic to hold our attention; all we have to keep us going is a building sense of dread. (The movie begins with some of the actual cellphone footage shot by other people on the platform, so we know exactly what we're building to.)

Something that is Coogler's fault, though, is the way in which Oscar's daughter is used; her scenes with Oscar are laden with foreboding, and their dialogue often comes across as ironically prophetic. ("Daddy, I'm scared." "Don't worry, baby. I'm gonna be fine" and so on.) There are also a few too many ominous shots of trains entering and leaving stations.

Once the shooting happens, though, the final act of the movie is riveting, largely due to the performance of Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother; Spencer's grief and pain, and her struggle to maintain her composure while her son is dying in the hospital, are searing.

Not a perfect movie, certainly, but some of the flaws are inherent to the material, and Coogler has done as much as possible to mitigate them. Certainly worth seeing for Jordan's and Spencer's performances, and as a strong debut from Coogler, whose next project will be worth looking for.

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