Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz and Ahna O’Reilly
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Date: June 6th
Fruitvale Station focuses on the day leading up to the contentious shooting of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Train police officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. The details surrounding the 22-year-old’s death may not be as well known on this side of the Atlantic but the decision to open the film with camera phone footage of the shooting quickly sets the scene. The film offers a snapshot into Oscar’s life on his last day and its slow pace and gentle exposition immerses the audience in his world. The understated tone and the use of hand-held photography gives the film an immediacy that slowly ratchets up the tension as the inevitable climax approaches.
Michael B. Jordan is establishing himself as an actor to watch and his nuanced performance as Oscar allows the audience to instantly connect with this complex character. We see his flaws, his struggles and his doubts but Jordan invests him with a genuine charm and personality. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer leads a solid supporting cast and she brings a charismatic presence to the role of the Oscar’s mother. However, it is Jordan’s rapport with Ariana Neal, who plays Oscar’s daughter Tatiana, that will really tug at the heartstrings.
Jordan’s intimate interactions with the other characters give us an insight into Oscar’s life as a son, a father, a boyfriend and a friend. The film manages to construct believable relationships in a very short time and this is one of its major strengths. The knowledge that it is based on a true story also gives the proceedings an unavoidable potency and director Ryan Coogler uses this to good effect in his debut feature film. He does use some artistic licence at times and some of Oscar’s selfless acts can seem a bit contrived. There are one or two heavy-handed moments but it is not enough to distract you from the unfolding narrative.
The tension in Fruitvale Station comes from the way it revels in its banality, lingering on the mundane tasks that take up Oscar’s day. Its emotionally-charged atmosphere creates a growing sense of foreboding that taints every simple deed with a sense of finality. The film loses some of its momentum near the end but it is not a film that relies on a dramatic sucker punch to make its point. Instead, it slowly erodes the audience’s emotional defences before unleashing a subtle climax that has a much deeper impact. It is a confident approach from a young director who has enough faith in his ability as a storyteller to avoid cheap parlour tricks or gimmicks.
Fruitvale Station can be a draining watch at times but it is a powerful film that captures the human loss and senselessness of a tragic night in 2009.