By Caryn James | James on Screens July 12, 2013 at 9:03AM
Fruitvale Station is tense, galvanizing and a little disappointing -- an odd combination that is easily explained. The drama, which won both the arty Grand Jury Prize and the populist Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is brilliantly acted by Michael B. Jordan in the fact-based story of Oscar Grant, a young black man trying to pull his life together, who was shot to death by a white transit cop in Oakland. His performance is matched by Octavia Spencer's as his mother. And Ryan Coogler has directed an extremely well-made example of a certain kind of film: gritty-indie style, full of hand-held tracking and camera-phone inserts. But Coogler's screenplay is too neat and manipulative -- a quality that undermines the film artistically, yet may be the key to any commercial success. Fruitvale makes everything easy on the audience.
The real story is already improbably dramatic: On New Year's Eve, Oscar, his girlfriend and some other friends were involved in a scuffle on the train, and the unarmed young man was shot to death. Fruitvale Station begins there, with the events shown on a witnesses' phone, then flashes back to what we know will be the final day of Oscar's life.
Jordan is an amazingly dynamic presence on screen, the kind
of actor who can say as much with stillness as with action. (So far he's best
known for television roles, on The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood). As
we see in a flashback within the flashback, Oscar has been in prison; and as we see at the start, he has recently
lost his job for being late and has been dealing drugs. But on this last day he's
trying to put all the bad stuff behind him, and Jordan touchingly, unsentimentally
portrays the inner struggles of someone who's not naturally the most responsible
guy, but who is trying hard to make things work with his girlfriend (Melonie
Diaz) and their small daughter.
It's too bad Coogler packs every saintly, redemptive turn
possible into that last-day structure. Oscar is kind to his mother (he had not
been when she visited him in prison); he picks
up his daughter from day care; he is helpful to a stranger at the market
where he pleads for his old job back, only to have that stranger turn up at a crucial moment later. Coogler really milks the scene between Oscar
and his daughter as he says goodbye --
we realize it will be for the last time -- and heads off to see the New Year's fireworks in San Francisco. But two young women sitting next to me in the screening room were in floods of
tears by the end, so . . . the
filmmakers obviously calculated a choice that works for some people.
Spencer, whose role includes scenes after Oscar's death, is so strong that it would diminish her performance to call it awards-bait, although she may be a foolproof bet for supporting actor nominations (remember how well the Weinstein Company knows how to campaign).
There is a lot to make Fruitvale Station worth watching -- especially considering that it is Coogler's first feature -- if you overlook its unmistakable audience-pandering.