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.
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.