Movie Review: 'Fruitvale Station' -- 4 stars
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Playing at Angelika
You might have read about Oscar Grant, the Oakland, Calif., man who died tragically on New Year's Day 2009, shot and killed by a transit officer at a local BART station. You might recall the protests that followed, and the accusations of racism. Or, you perused the facts of the case in 2010, when the officer, Johannes Mehserle, was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
But you probably don't know that Oscar had a girlfriend and a daughter who adored him. You're likely not aware that the recent parolee, a convicted felon for drug dealing and other offenses, had gained and lost a supermarket job while striving to become a better person.
"Fruitvale Station," Ryan Coogler's astonishing new film about Oscar Grant's last day alive, stresses those essential details. It's a work of biographical reclamation, giving its subject a posthumous chance to have his story told, to transform from a statistic and a lightning rod for protests into a full-fledged human being. The approach drives home the magnitude of this tragedy in a way that no news story ever could.
Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar in what is ultimately a story about the 21st century American Dream sadly deferred. On that fateful day, he is at a crossroads: sharing his future ambitions with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), trying to get back that grocery store position, preparing for his mom's (Octavia Spencer) birthday party and tenderly caring for his 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), while simultaneously being hit with reminders of his criminal past.
Coogler's camera remains intimately glued to his star throughout, perusing every inch of his face as the character reflects on where he's been; following him through the Bay Area streets and observing his close bond with Tatiana.
Jordan, best known for his work on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," brings a swirl of complicated emotions to the character, expertly blending his kindheartedness and optimistic exterior with a painful inner life. The actor projects the sort of onscreen charisma that makes a performance seems both thought-out and effortless, combining a naturalistic sensibility with a strong sense of craft. There's great soul to the work, which gives a complete picture of a young man's life in microcosmic form.
Coogler enhances the stellar acting by imbuing the film with a well-defined three-act structure and a tone that fluctuates between melancholy and poignancy. There's a cinematic shape and texture to "Fruitvale Station," manifest in the darkening of the mood as the tragic ending draws nearer and in Coogler's knack for visceral drama, which gives added weight to an inherently powerful story.
Everyday occurrences that we typically take for granted become profound experiences because of our knowledge of Oscar's sudden, terrible end, in a movie that's ultimately a celebration of life.