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Photo by Ron Koeberer – Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
If you know the true story that inspired this film you might not be eager to see it, but the tone of Fruitvale Station isn’t downbeat or bleak. It’s an attempt to present a three-dimensional portrait of the young man who was killed on New Year’s Eve four years ago at an Oakland, California rapid-transit station. Because writer-director Ryan Coogler and his actors do such a good job the film is consistently compelling despite its predestined finale.

I became intrigued after learning that Fruitvale Station won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, an unusual parlay that indicates critical approval as well as popular support. This is all the more impressive considering that it’s Coogler’s feature-film debut.

His first, and best, move was casting charismatic Michael B. Jordan in the leading role of Oscar Grant. As the story is told in a series of flashbacks, we learn that Oscar has recently served time; in prison and on the streets, a volatile temper too often makes him his own worst enemy. His girlfriend (well played by Melonie Diaz) is loyal and loving even when he screws up, while their adorable young daughter (Ariana Neal) brings out the best in him. His long-suffering mother (Octavia Spencer, in another finely-tuned performance) holds out hope that he can get his act together and become the upstanding family man he says he wants to be.

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Photo by Cait Adkins – Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Fruitvale Station bends over backwards to avoid painting its characters as heroes or villains. The closeness of family and the feeling of community comes across as genuine in every scene, making the outcome all the more upsetting. The entire cast is excellent but Jordan pulls off the formidable feat of making Oscar an empathetic character, despite his failings and flare-ups. Coogler’s often-intimate staging of scenes has a near-documentary feeling that’s equally impressive.

The movie doesn’t set itself up as a morality tale; it’s simply a slice of life, and it’s that unpretentious mindset that makes it so effective.