Darling of The Sundance Film Festival 2013 Fruitvale Station tells a tragic true story that sparked riots in the California Bay Area. Marking the feature debut of writer director Ryan Coogler it paints an intimate portrait of Oscar Grant in the build-up a fateful night on 1st January 2009.
Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is a recently paroled criminal desperate to get his life back on track. But it’s not quite going to plan. He’s just lost his job at a local supermarket, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) isn’t sure if he’s the right man to help raise their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and his mother (Octavia Spencer) is constantly worrying about him. But on New Year’s Eve 2008 Oscar is determined to put things right in the face of adversity and a sense of building fate.
The film opens with actual footage of Grant’s shooting on the platform of the titular Fruitvale Station, it’s a harrowing sight and one that creates a big enough bang to resonate throughout the whole film. So we follow Oscar as he goes about his day, occasionally flashing-back to his time in prison, to give us an idea of this man. He’s someone trying to make a go of life, he wants to do right by all those around him. But the world is often conspiring against him as people make assumptions based purely on his colour and past. In one scene he helps a pretty, butter-wouldn’t-melt white girl in the supermarket but as he approaches she instinctively takes a step away from him. It’s a clever moment and one that speaks volumes, alas it is a rarity in a film that otherwise feels heavy-handed.
Because Coogler as a director has talent, his wondering lens allows for a nice sense of intimacy but his script either simplifies or over-eggs the issues at hand. Oscar befriending a stray dog who is then mindlessly run-over in the street feels like too heavy-handed a way of making a point. The foreboding sense of doom is present from the moment that shot rings out in the opening seconds, it’s unnecessary to therefore ram it home during the entire running time. As such Fruitvale Station often feels manipulative, a film that while always tragic is too eager to draw to your attention the sheer injustice of the climax long before we are able to judge it for ourselves.
Thankfully the film is rescued by a stunning central turn from Michael B. Jordan. Having done solid work in Friday Night Lights and then found-footage superhero movie Chronicle here he is able to really flex some genuine acting clout. One scene in particular captures this with a grace rarely seen in actors of his age. It comes in a flashback when his mother visits him in prison, a fellow inmate casts aspersions on him and we witness Jordan erupt in a seething rage and then, as he catches his mother’s disapproving look, he falls back, a puppy-dog expression on his face desperate for his mother to understand and forgive why he behaves this way. Throw in an adorable on screen chemistry with his daughter Neal and Jordan demonstrates that he is a talent to keep your eyes firmly peeled for.
Occasionally as frustrating as any public transport system Fruitvale Station has one First Class act from Michael B. Jordan.