Movie review: 'Fruitvale Station is a heart-breaking, human drama

For the News-DemocratJuly 25, 2013 

What It's About

Based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, who was fatally shot by a rapid-transit police officer during an altercation in the wee hours of New Year's Day 2009, "Fruitvale Station" is powerful and haunting.

The modest, low-budget film approaches this tragic case simply and, because of Coogler's keen straight-forward choices, the result is a heart-breaking, human drama.

Beginning with cell-phone footage of the actual shooting, the film starkly addresses the last day of this 22-year-old man, depicting his faults and his good points, as we go from wake-up to his final hours in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dec. 31, 2008, starts with ordinary daily tasks -- Oscar taking his young daughter to pre-school, preparing for his mother's birthday party, planning a New Year's Eve outing, and trying to get his job at a grocery store back.

In a remarkably confident first feature, writer-director Ryan Coogler gives us just enough details to show that Oscar is not a saint, but that he was attempting to get his life together before the the shooting took place.


Michael B. Jordan has been acting since he was a youngster. Memorable in "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," he has a natural ability to be in the moment. He's very real as Oscar, a guy trying to put his past behind him, but self-destructive tendencies keep thwarting his progress.

As his mother Wanda, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is the heart of the film. She can wring tears out of anyone, and her fierce portrayal of a tough-love practicing mom is gut-wrenching.

Melonie Diaz ("Ro") plays Sophina, Oscar's longtime girlfriend and mother of his 4-year-old daughter, and she is convincing, conveying a wide range of emotions -- frustrated and hopeful, then confused and grief-stricken.

The two BART cops are realistically portrayed by Kevin Durand ("Lost") and Chad Michael Murray ("One Tree Hill").

What Works

With assured directing and an intimate-focus script, "Fruitvale Station" is noteworthy for its details. The random, mundane things that occur during an ordinary day make the characters' identifiable.

As Oscar encounters friends, relatives and strangers that day, a portrait of this flawed yet hopeful young man emerges, making the loss painful.

After the film's harrowing conclusion, the aftermath is revealed. Footage of Oscar's daughter and protest gatherings are shown. The story behind the headlines can't be ignored, and the film wants you to be aware.

What Doesn't Work

The film's structure -- presenting a day in the life -- means you get the slow, meandering, draggy parts because life is rarely edited. The hand-held shaky camera is effective here, adding a documentary quality to the drama.

But obviously it's fictionalized, to a certain extent.

The dialogue is filled with colloquialisms, and sometimes, as spoken, they are hard to understand.

A searing piece of contemporary movie-making, "Fruitvale Station" wowed the Sundance audiences and has picked up numerous honors. Expect to see it on many Top Ten lists at year's end.

4 stars out of 4

Director: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Chad Michael Murray, Kevin Durand

Rated: R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use

Length: 1:30

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