Film Review: Fruitvale Station

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Plot: Based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year old from the Bay Area who was shot by a police officer at Fruitvale train station early New Years day, 2009. The film chronicles his last day, including his relationship with young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

While there was no other way to tell this story, already knowing the outcome of this movie takes away from some of the drama, but there are times where this works to the film’s advantage as well. There are individual moments in this film that are utterly depressing, but equally as powerful. When this movie hits, it hits hard. Newcomer Ryan Coogler both writes and directs Fruitvale Station, and while his script is below average, this is one hell of a directorial debut.

While the film is solid all the way through, a lot of the drama didn’t hit for me because I already knew the fate of this protagonist. This is where stronger written material was needed. One scene in particular though that knocks you on your ass is a flashback to when Oscar is in prison, and his mom (Octavia Spencer) comes to visit him. This is an incredible scene, and the reason it works is because it doesn’t rely on the end to create the drama. Even if I didn’t know Oscar was going to die, this scene would have still hit hard, and the script desperately needed more moments like that, because a lot of it is meandering until the climax.

Coogler is a much stronger director though because he overcomes the script’s weaknesses by creating subtle, yet heavy shots that are emotional due to the fact that we know the ending. There’s a moment when Oscar and his friends are on the subway, and Coogler uses an external shot of the train leaving for Fruitvale Station. The sound and the way the camera just holds after the train zips away is extremely effective. The very last image of this movie (not including the real footage they edit in) will make anyone empty the kleenex box. For this director to be able to create some of these subtle nuances in his first film is very promising, and I’m very much looking forward to this guy’s next project.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Aside from Coogler’s directing, the other key element is the lead, Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. Jordan has already shown his acting chops in the Friday Night Lights series and last year’s Chronicle, but after this movie, expect the obligatory Oscar buzz, and I’m sure his name will be thrown around for 900 different franchises. All the praise is well deserved though. He’s simply phenomenal in this role – quiet, intense, funny, and extremely likable despite his heavy flaws, which is a key component for why this film works. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

But Jordan isn’t the only one who carries this movie. Octavia Spencer already has an Oscar, and if this film was released after October, she’d be getting buzz as well. Spencer is perfect, in particular her last scene at the hospital, which is just gut-wrenching. There are other great supporting roles as well such as Melonie Diaz who plays Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend, and Kevin Durand does a nice job as one of the cops who accosts Oscar, albeit a small role towards the end. I don’t know if it quite matches up with his take on Fred ‘The Blob’ Dukes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine though, I’ll have to take another look…

There are moments in this film that will absolutely destroy you, especially the end. It’s like Amour times ten…fair warning. Every scene with Oscar and his daughter is tough to watch knowing what happens. But even though the film has these great moments, it’s biggest weakness is that there wasn’t enough of them. Much of the film is just waiting for the inevitable conclusion, and there are times when that’s just not effective. They also bring in earlier characters for the climax, and it seemed waaaaaaaaay too convenient. I get this is based on a true story, so maybe all these characters really were present, but in watching it as a film, it seemed a little contrived. With a stronger script, this could have been great, but the film achieves what it wants to, and is a very strong effort thanks in most part to Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler’s direction.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.