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Dustin Putman

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Fruitvale Station  (2013)
4 Stars
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O'Reilly, Ariana Neal, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears.
2013 – 84 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some violence, language throughout, and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 20, 2013.
Winner of the top two Dramatic accolades at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award), "Fruitvale Station" isn't just an important motion picture, but a mournful cry over all the injustice the world has to offer. Though the film is based on a true story about a 22-year-old black man whose life was taken from him long before his time, magnificent first-time writer and director Ryan Coogler has avoided all the pitfalls such a telling could have easily lapsed into had the project fallen into lesser hands. It is not a condemnation against white people or even a preachy sermon on racism. Its human subject is not an unblemished martyr, but a flawed, unevenly-tempered individual fighting temptation and adversity while trying to make good for his girlfriend and daughter. It is precisely because he's portrayed as a real person in progress rather than an angel that makes every moment of the film—and the foreknowledge of what happened to him—so achingly vivid and true. At its universal core, "Fruitvale Station" is about the sheer fragility of life itself, and it is nothing short of unforgettable.

A year before his fateful final day on Earth, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was locked up in jail on a gun possession charge, his caring but fed-up mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), threatening to stop visiting him if he didn't soon get it together for his preschool-aged daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), who couldn't understand why her daddy kept going on "vacation" rather than staying with her. By New Year's Eve 2008, he has been home for a while and reunited with Tatiana and longtime girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Dropping his family off at work and school, Oscar busies himself running errands and making an inappropriate play to get his job at the supermarket back so he won't have to come clean about getting fired. He picks up seafood for his mom's birthday dinner that evening. He puts gas in the car. He worries about having the money to pay the rent, then considers making a drug deal with the stash of pot he has in his closet. Ultimately, he dumps it in the bay at the last minute. He genuinely wants to turn things around, to make an honest living, to provide for his family, and to demonstrate to a doubting Sophina that he is dedicated to being faithful to her. The plan is to celebrate New Year's in the city with friends after dropping Tatiana off with Sophina's sister. Worried that they might be drinking, Wanda suggests they take the BART train into San Francisco rather than risk driving. Oscar obliges, and they go on their way. It is the last time she will see her son alive.

A searing docudrama that forever feels as if real life is naturally unfolding, "Fruitvale Station" depicts how a collection of decisions, though well-meaning, can lead to irrevocable tragedy. Opening with actual grainy cell phone footage of the sickening moment Oscar was shot by a police officer while being contained with a group of friends following a fight that broke out on the metro, the film soon turns back the clock by twenty-four hours. The narrative is told with a slice-of-life authenticity, the mundane chores of one's everyday existence colliding with internal crises of conscience, chance encounters with strangers, and time spent with family and loved ones, all leading toward a moment that changes everything. There was no way for Oscar to know he wouldn't be alive to see the first sunrise of 2009, but the viewer is set up from the start to be aware something bad was about to take place. This enlightenment on the audience's part only accentuates how beautiful and crucial and fleeting each second of the picture—and Oscar's existence—is. A scene in which Oscar's run-in with a kindly stray pit bull occurs mere moments before it is fatally hit by a car acts as poignant foreshadowing, yes, but also is an astutely low-key comment on not judging a book by its cover.

Michael B. Jordan has been making steady strides in his career for a while—he was on the last few seasons of TV's masterful "Friday Night Lights" and co-starred in 2012's revisionist superhero saga "Chronicle"—but his performance bringing a voice and vitality to Oscar Grant is certain to be his breakthrough into the big time. An instant Oscar contender, Jordan gives so many layers to his character—anger, love, desperation, playfulness, generosity, hotheadedness, compassion—that it's impossible not to care deeply for him. Although it is he who drives the movie, his co-stars are exceptional in their own right. Melonie Diaz (2008's "Be Kind Rewind") receives possibly her strongest role, to date, as Sophina, who would want nothing more than to settle down with Oscar if only she could trust that he's there for her and no longer doing the kinds of things that could once again get him taken away from her and Tatiana. At the same time, Sophina is itching to have some fun—it is she who insists they go out and party for New Year's instead of staying at home—and Diaz brings a heartbreak and confusion to her late scenes as she faces the unthinkable consequence of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As 4-year-old Tatiana, Ariana Neal (in her big-screen debut) is an effervescent, unaffected find, the bond she creates with Jordan so convincingly affectionate it's as if they are a real father and daughter. Last but far from least, Octavia Spencer (2011's "The Help") is sublime as Oscar's mother Wanda, a beacon of bittersweet strength for her family who cannot help but blame herself for sending her son off on the train that night. Spencer ensures that her every scene counts and leaves an impact.

Stripped to its essentials yet understanding the necessity to observe the preciousness of life itself, "Fruitvale Station" is a devastating portrait of the fallibility of man and the importance of appreciating what one has while it's still here. The film serves as a hot-button think piece—first and foremost, why did the homicide of a man who was more or less innocent and posing no threat take place, and how could, and should, it have been avoided?—but writer-director Ryan Coogler does not waste his time trying to make a point because he knows that the tough, thought-provoking strength of his material can speak for itself. It does just that, all right, and the events as played out prove to be as intensely riveting as they are unfathomably difficult to make sense of. "Fruitvale Station" ends in the most affecting way possible: with an innocent question from Tatiana that Sophina has no idea how to answer. In her shoes, how could anyone respond?
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman