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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

(Review) FRUITVALE STATION Is One Of The Most Palpable And Gut-Wrenching Films Of The Year

You've probably seen the news stories. They often read a little something like this: "An unarmed African-American man was shot and killed by a police officer...who thought the victim was reaching for a weapon..." Sadly, these articles have become a blurred mix of maddening details that may have reached a boiling point in America and now on social media. First time feature writer/director Ryan Coogler attempts to capture an intimate look at the real-life case of 22-year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant III in FRUITVALE STATION.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar, a young father to a four-year-old daughter with girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). After two previous stints in jail for various felonies, including a drug conviction, he is determined to turn his life around and make a better future for his family and himself. But on January 1st 2009, his life is tragically cut short when he is fatally shot by a transit police officer after a disturbance on the train at the Fruitvale Station metro stop in Oakland, California.

The officer, Johannes Mehserle (whose name was changed in the movie to Officer Ingram and is played by Chad Michael Murray) reportedly claimed he mistook his gun for a taser. The exchange between Oscar and his friends, who were also detained, and the cops and the shooting were all caught on video by several  passengers on board the stopped train, some of whom claim the shooting was racially-charged and that Oscar tried to placate the situation. Mehserle was charged for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail. He was released after serving eleven months.

Despite the intense climate during which it arrives, in the midst of the much discussed trial of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and the scrutiny of New York City's "stop and frisk" program, among countless other cases, FRUITVALE STATION moves beyond the racial politics to show who Oscar was as a person, not just a nameless victim. Though Coogler opens the film with the shocking real-life video of the murder scene, which is sure to rouse many emotions from the audience, he offers the audience a glimpse of Oscar in the hours leading up to his death--his relationship with his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Despite the affective performances from all, it becomes clear that Coogler's focus in the first 2/3 of the film is to present Oscar as a man who was loved by all and had no enemies (aside from the one foe whose unexplained feud with Oscar continued after they were both out of prison).

This becomes tiresome after a while, especially once we get to the needless scene featuring Oscar rescuing a stray dog that had been ran over. There's no reason to continually send the message that Oscar's impending death was unjustified because he was a nice person. He could have been a less beloved person whose death would have still been unjustified. The recurrent scenes just come off forced and unnecessary.

But where the film is most powerful is not when we see Oscar being the best boyfriend/dad/brother/friend/son ever; it's during scenes with Jordan by himself and contemplating Oscar's destiny. They're made more palpable when they're juxtaposed with the flashback scenes of Oscar in prison and obviously embittered with himself and his mom (whose visit inspired a particularly moving scene). With the film's independent feel, these scenes come off particularly authentic and accessible.

You can truly sense how Jordan took the character and made him someone who wasn't perfect and acknowledged that about himself. He knew that the struggle to be an ideal anything was an ongoing battle he was desperately afraid to lose. It is Jordan's mesmerizing performance that made Oscar's untimely death that much more gut-wrenching to watch, despite knowing how and when it happens. Oscar is a conflicted character, which makes his story most interesting to watch. We as an audience deserve to see that complexity conveyed on screen. Through Jordan's performance, we can see that Oscar was on the cusp of possibly becoming something great right before his ambition was halted completely.

While FRUITVALE STATION is elevated by Jordan's portrayal, the supporting cast, whose characters surround Oscar even during his most internal struggles, is also magnetic to watch. Diaz is absolutely heartbreaking as the young mother and frustrated but loyal girlfriend to Oscar. She delivers a hardened approach to each aspect of her character in a way that is familiar and very authentic. You as an audience member will want to embrace her, especially during the tragic final moments in the film. Even though Diaz is rarely ever in a scene without Jordan, her depiction of Sophina allows her to stand out.

Similarly, Spencer captures Wanda's vulnerability in a role that lets her to showcase her talent as an actress in a way we haven't seen before. Burdened by the recognizable concern for her son and about her own life (of which we don't get a thorough view, but we are able to discern its weight from Spencer's performance), Wanda becomes more than a grieving mother of the victim, more than simply a tearful face in the crowd of mourners; she is Oscar's rock and we watch her lose him. It is an honest and devastating performance.

FRUITVALE STATION may not be a perfect movie but is very effective and harrowing to watch at times--not only during the vital last 30 minutes of the film, when the drama culminates, but also during the prior part of the movie, which in spite of its insistent nature makes the ending that much more crushing. No matter what your sentiment is about the case, or how close you feel to the situation, it's impossible to not be moved to tears by the time the closing credits begin to roll up the screen.

Rating: A- (**** out of *****)

FRUITVALE STATION hits select theaters on July 12th and opens nationwide on July 26th. To find out when it's coming to your area, click here.


Daniel said...

The performances alone especially Michael B. Jordan make this worth watching. Sounds like Ryan Coogler went a tad heavy handed with certain aspects of the film.

Brittani Burnham said...

I just saw a preview for this for the first time today, and I'm instantly intrigued.

Courtney said...

Good review! I'm trying to slowly wean myself off of obsessing over seeing this film, so I don't build it up too high. I'm fascinated by the story, and I'm fascinated to see what Coogler does with the story. It's a story that needed some serious spotlight, and it shows how film can be the perfect medium for this.

Emmanuel Lopez - Motivatorman said...

Wow, been curious about this film and now your review makes me want to see it! Thanks Candice. said...

You nailed all the actor's performances perfectly. I got a chance to interview Ryan Coogler and I addressed your issues with painting Oscar in such a positive light -

T&T: I was very moved by Fruitvale Station. Chris can tell you I was blubbering like a baby at the end. I haven't been to a tearjerker like this in quite a while. But what do you say to the critics that say it's manipulative and contrived. That based on true events still leaves a lot of room for the filmmaker to tell the story he wants to tell?...

Candice Frederick said...

i can see where some critics may say it's contrived (and coogler did take some artistic liberty in certain scenes), but this story (based on actual events) tells a very specific story. It's meant to make you feel a certain way, in the point of view of the living victims--so that their son/father/boyfriend's story can finally be told.

Dankwa Brooks said...

Great review Candice!

As a filmmaker I tell people all the time it's all about the acting and the story on low budget films such as this.

I think COOGLER was constrained of what all he was trying to say about this young man in ONE DAY and I think he did. Like I said in my review I know cats like Oscar and for many reasons they just can't get it together despite being nice guys. You get to see that he was trying to do right, but you also got to see that everything was pretty much of his own making (his job situation).

No matter what you think of the early parts of the film, the final part is impressive filmmaking and makes you feel every turn of the screw.

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