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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Fruitvale Station

WARNING: If you know absolutely nothing about the true story of Oscar Grant, this review will contain spoilers. 

On New Years Eve, Oscar Grant took the BART train into the city instead of driving to give his mother some peace of mind. By 10 a.m. on New Years Day, Grant was pronounced dead after being shot in the back while pressed into the pavement by BART police officers. Grant's last words, witnesses say, were: "You shot me. I got a four-year-old daughter." 

Oscar Grant's story is one with both ripples and depths. There is the story of Grant's life and premature death; the story of his family and how they cope with the loss; the story of the strangers who riot, and the outrage sparked by his murder. Digging deeper, there is the story of African American males in today's society, who as President Obama said recently, "are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence." Deeper still, this story is rooted in a nation's embarrassing past, embroiled in a history of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and finally fear, echoed in today's media with headlines featuring Paula Deen and George Zimmerman. All of these things are connected and staggering in scope, but "Fruitvale Station" uses a microscope to give us the story of a single day in one person's life. Although the implications of this movie are wide, the scope is narrow, delivering a well-told, concise, and moving film.  

It seems that writer/director Ryan Coogler took Grant's last words and worked backwards to create a glimpse into the last 24 hours of the man's life, centering on the relationship between Grant and his family, and most passionately depicting his loving relationship with his daughter. For such a dramatic story, 80% of Fruitvale Station is low-key and casual, depicting a 22-year-old father who works hard to please people around him and to improve himself, but struggles to control his impulsive nature. Grant feels real and fleshed out, and the movie even delves into comedic territory in moments, such as one showing Grant picking out a birthday card for his mother that isn't "too white." 

If you removed the movie's first five minutes and last 10 minutes, it would still stand as a solid character piece, relying less on the shocking nature of the story and more on the controlled and masterful performances by its leads, including Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant and Octavia Spencer as Grant's mother. Jordan has previously starred in "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," and "Chronicle," so it's too late to call him an up-and-coming star. But after Fruitvale's positive critical reception and Jordan's transition into a lead actor, it's hard not to expect Jordan's presence in Hollywood to crescendo in the wake of this performance. 

That isn't to say Fruitvale Station is a perfect movie. The subject matter is heavy, and at times the movie's attempts to make us connect with the story border on gratuitous. And for the most part, the parts that feel gratuitous are the few-and-far-between moments that are completely fabricated to fill in pieces of Grant's day that are unaccounted for.  (This link contains spoilers, but is a very precise account of which pieces of the film are based on reality and which pieces were fabricated.)

At the end of the day, this is a film I would unquestionably recommend to any of my friends, and it's even one that lodged a lump in my throat by the time the credits rolled  (a feat that, for me, very few movies have accomplished). Fruitvale Station doesn't hesitate to take a side and gives us a kind, but realistic, portrayal of a person who was the victim of a crime. Overall the occasional moments of cloying dialogue can be forgiven due to the film's superb acting and solid framework. I give it an A-. 
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