Although inspired by an actual event, this review will contain spoilers. You have been warned.
Every once in a while there comes a movie that is great, but makes me never want to watch it again because it’s not what one would call enjoyable to experience. The first film that comes to mind in this category is Requiem for a Dream, and now Fruitvale Station can be added to the list. This is not a movie that you will like watching; you will appreciate what it does and the story it tells, but it is not something you walk away from feeling good in any stretch of the imagination. Fruitvale Station is a dim, brooding piece of filmmaking that takes a nationwide tragedy and makes it into a powerful story without much of a happy ending.
For those who don’t know, on January 1, 2009 after a fight on a subway train headed for Oakland, California a 22-year-old father Oscar Grant (portrayed by the brilliant Michael B. Jordan) was shot by BART police and killed. Whether it was a genuine accident or not is undetermined, and will not be argued here. This film, titled after the station Oscar was killed at, tells the story of the last 24 hours of his life; and what amazes is how a film taking place in one single day can create such emotions. It is not an easy film to watch, as I had a hard time watching the outcomes of scenes, but it is one that should be recognized for its achievements.
First time writer-director Ryan Coogler decides to open the film with the best actual footage shot from passengers on the train during the shooting. While watching it on the big screen, all memories of seeing the video in the past dissipate. It’s a bold choice to open your film with real footage of what this film is essentially based on, but to see it and then feel like you are reliving it with Oscar throughout the rest of the film is a harrowing experience, and a journey you will not want to go on again. Once the footage fades to black, and we hear the deathly gunshot followed quickly by a crowd gasping, we begin Oscar Grant’s last 24 hours of life.
We find out through snappy dialogue and a fast first scene between Oscar and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) that he had cheated on her in the past. Right out of the gate we see that Oscar wasn’t a loyal and trustworthy kind of guy, but he makes amends to that when he tells Sophina that he wants only her forever. He is a people pleaser and will do anything to have people think fondly of him. Their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) knocks on their bedroom door, to which her father answers; she is only four-years-old. Oscar then takes Tatiana to school, Sophina to work, and we go with him from there. We stop first stop at a grocery store where he used to work before he got fired, we find out that Oscar hasn’t told his family yet. He asks his boss for his job back, but of course he says no.
For this being Coogler’s first film it is quite the head start, but even then there is no unrecognizing some amateurish tropes. I think having one or two moments where we see a phone’s screen to show what our protagonist is texting can be useful, but it is a tool that is constantly used in Fruitvale Station, to the point where it became tiresome. We are even shown who is calling instead of having Oscar just answering the phone and throwing in a line to explain. It’s a small nitpick that goes a long way while watching this and would briefly take me out of the film every time it happened. The rest of the film is directed in a somberly brilliant, with Coogler’s tight script to help bring a lot of elements and characters full circle.
A lot of what Coogler tries to deal with is foreshadowing, which is where some of my problems weigh in on the film. I have no problem with the idea of foreshadowing if it is subtle; in fact, I think it should be subtle especially for a story that we don’t know the ending to yet. Unfortunately, it feels like Coogler thinks people don’t know about the ending of this story and that is where one scene in particular falls entirely flat on a storytelling basis, emotionally it works. The scene is the last time Tatiana will ever see her father alive and if just the thought doesn’t make you teary-eyed you’re a monster, but the scene has Tatiana tell Oscar, “I don’t want you to go, I keep hearing gunshots” (in reference to the fireworks). He then tells her he is going to be okay, and will take her to Chuck E. Cheese tomorrow.
The scene works emotionally just in context of what we know happens, but the foreshadowing while you watch the scene feels so ham-fisted and forced to get a reaction out of you that it didn’t work for me. It showed me that Coogler doesn’t have enough faith in his audience to trust his former foreshadowing attempts previous to that scene (there are many). I almost loath the scene because of its execution, had it not been for how quiet and well-acted it is. The more emotional scenes deal with Oscar’s mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) who takes every scene and holds it close to the chest, making ever emotional beat hit its mark. Everyone in this film is incredible, but she and Michael B. Jordan are the stand-outs.
In the hands of someone different, the ending of this film could have gone off the rails (honestly no pun intended), which is where I give Coogler most of the credit that is due. When you have a film dealing with not just police brutality, but brutality in any way, it is hard to convey the difference between someone doing their job and being a villain. The way this ending is dealt with is probably the best it could have ever been done. There are two police officers that come mainly into focus one played by Kevin Durand is the brutal, just ungenerous guy that has no sympathy whatsoever; and then there is the other officer who shoots Oscar. However, it never leans on either side of if it was an accident or not. The officer looks shocked, Durand asked what happened, and it’s done. I’m glad it was handled with care as opposed to calling somebody out in the situation.
With most “based on a true story” movies that come and go, Fruitvale Station is the first in quite some time that feels real. I look at the opening of the film as well as the closing, and I feel like I have gone on this final journey with Oscar Grant; which truly terrifies me. You follow this character in a celebration of life, until his death and even then he finds enough strength to whisper that he has a daughter. It takes a lot for a film to make me sit in a dark theater after the credits roll with mouth agape and emotions flowing through my body, but the final shot of Fruitvale Station did just that for me. This is a heartbreaking story that broke even my heart.
The Good: the structure of the film, Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer especially, how the finale is dealt with, and most everything but a couple issues.
The Bad: overuse of showing phone activity projected on the screen.
The Ugly: one scene that pushes foreshadowing over the edge, to what feels almost insulting.