Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station

FRUITVALE STATION: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, directed by Ryan Coogler (85 min.)

It's nearly impossible to overstate the number of times I have left a film physically, emotionally, and literally shaken.  Films can be powerful, great, exciting, thrilling, so on and so forth.  They can leave a lasting impact, they can win all the awards, they can be forever remembered as a classic.  But I can count on one hand the number of films that affected me in the way Fruitvale Station did.  The breakout Sundance hit from earlier in the year deserves every ounce of praise it receives.  This true story of a true tragedy will shake viewers to the absolute core.  If you are like me, and you are growing weary of the bloated Hollywood blockbuster system, of the 800-pound gorilla whose odor is beginning to seep out of the summer multiplexes, Fruitvale Station is a film that will restore your faith in the power of independent films and filmmakers.

The story is the tragic tale of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young black man caught up in the system of inner-city New York.  Oscar is scuffling against the grain, fighting to keep his head above water and support his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).  He has spent some time in prison, but Oscar is not a bad kid.  He is a genuinely good person who has made a number of bad decisions and is fighting against immaturity and the fact that he had to grow up long before most of us.  Oscar sells weed, mostly because he lost his steady job at the grocery store, but he isn't necessarily the criminal type.  He doesn't carry a weapon or go seeking trouble, he simply does what he has to do rather than what he should do, which is show up on time to work.

Oscar loves his young daughter and his girlfriend, and he wears the desperation of wanting a good life on his face.  His support system also includes his mother, Wanda, played in another powerful performance by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.  Wanda knows his son means well, but she also knows the troubles in his life have mostly been brought on by his own mistakes.  All of these central performances fit together lock in step, stripped clean of vanity or glamour and unequivocally real.  The dynamic of this family is earned and authentic, making the events that unfold resonate even more.

The film takes place on New Years Eve of 2008.  Oscar and Sophina, after a family dinner celebrating Wanda's birthday, plan on going out to the city with their friends to enjoy the New Year's festivities.  They take the train into the city with five or six of their friends, then back to their homes, where an unfortunate stroke of luck brings out Oscar's past in a fight on the subway train.  The train is stopped immediately, at Fruitvale, and Oscar and his friends are jerked out onto the platform by transit police, abused and threatened.  And then the tragedy takes place, and the lives of these people are forever changed.  These last moments on the platform are as tense as anything in recent memory, even though the outcome is shown in real camera phone footage at the beginning.  That is only the foundation of the plot.  What is just as important is the day we spend with Oscar, where he struggles to make the right decisions and - in a quiet, touching moment on the street with a passer by - maybe even finds a sliver of hope for his future.

Fruitvale Station is a film reliant more on performances than technique, but the camera work from director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison is effective and immediate.  The urgency of the story itself is amplified by the humanity of the lens.  It is important to understand Oscar as a whole, to see his flaws that have put him behind the 8 ball, but to also understand that he is a good person at heart.  I found myself caring deeply for Oscar and for his family, for his mother who loves him, and even for his friends who aren't bad apples either.

Even the credits weren't enough to get me out of my seat.  As Fruitvale Station ended I sat, stunned by this film, and more importantly collecting myself and my thoughts before trying to get back into the world.  Here is a powerful bit of filmmaking from great new talents in director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who is compelling as Oscar.  Films like Fruitvale Station are rare things, important films that are just as entertaining as they are emotionally devastating, tense, and unforgettable.  I will not soon forget the story of Oscar Grant, and as the final scene of the picture shows us, the people affected by this tragedy in New York will not soon forget him either.