Fruitvale Station (2013) (R)

This review contains SPOILERS!
Oscar Grant is a name that has faded into the background. In all honesty, I had never heard of the man until I saw the trailers for "Fruitvale Station". His name is average and not that uncommon; and regrettably his story is not entirely uncommon either.
"Fruitvale Station" begins with blurry cellphone footage of the incident in question. It's in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009. Four men are being detained by the police and violent chaos is slowly starting to permeate the situation. It's hard to make out what's going on through the grain of the footage. One man is sitting off to the side with his hands high above his head, attempting to pacify the police, while the other three appear to be less compliant (for good reasons, we will later find out). A gathering throng of people are watching and shouting which only adds to the building madness. But then, things start to go wrong—fast.
A policeman takes one of the men and throws him on the ground. Kneeling on his head, we see the abuse even through the shaky camera.
And then...a gunshot and the screen goes black.
It's breathtakingly effective and also cruel to watch something like this. I don't know if it was actual footage, though I assume that it was.
We go back one year, to New Year's Eve 2008 and we see Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Their small family is completed by their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
We jump back and forth throughout the movie in time but eventually we land on New Year's Eve of 2009.
It's only because of the first two minutes of the film that we know something tragic is coming; but none of the characters do and here the film is surprising. There are no last goodbyes or cliche words said to each other—no apologies where they might be needed. None of the characters know that they will be affected, so New Year's Eve is just a normal day.
"Fruitvale Station" is a movie that is 80% pointless. We follow Oscar around on his last day, wanting to see meaning in everything he does. Alas, most of his interactions are completely insignificant: he goes to the grocery store, he calls his grandmother, he helps a lady pick out fish, he pumps gas, etc.
Throughout this day, we feel like a passenger in his car—a friend. The entire film is shot with an extreme close-up which adds to the feeling of sitting next to Oscar.
"Fruitvale Station" has the typical independent feel to it—the depth of field, the film grain, the ever-so-slightly wavering camera.
For a film that just follows a man around, "Fruitvale Station" is remarkably powerful. It never overplays its sentimentality card, though it could on several occasions. That isn't to say that the film is flawless, because it's not. Some of the dialogue feels forced and contrived and not every scene rings true.
A certain amount of Hollywood-izing went into Oscar's story, something that couldn't be avoided.
But the film doesn't try to glorify Oscar, it shows both his strengths and his weaknesses. He is a flawed protagonist. His temper flares up unexpectedly and he won't shy away from shouting challenges and getting into fights. He pushes marijuana around (in a flashback he is seen in jail and I assume that this is why)...but he's getting better.
His girlfriend and his daughter are the reasons for him becoming a better person. He doesn't want to get sent back to jail and have his daughter grow up without a father.
We have the inner wrestling of Oscar paired with the intense feeling of family that the films manages to evoke; but we also have an increasing feeling of dread that builds up as the film reaches its final and heartbreaking scene.
Many references have been made to Paul Haggis's "Crash", though I fail to see the resemblance.
"Crash" was entirely about stereotyping and racism, and those both have their place in "Fruitvale Station". But they aren't brought to the foreground by Ryan Coogler (the writer and director) like Haggis has them.
It's impossible to escape the racism though, and we briefly see this with the police officers. They weed out suspects, i.e., anyone who is a black male.
But the film doesn't exactly condemn the policemen, though they seem villainous you have to remember that they are just doing their job as they see fit.
They are also remorseful for their actions, but "Fruitvale Station" is not about them.
It's a poignant movie, one that will affect many people.
Every facet of the movie is almost perfect. It's not the best movie I've ever seen; but it is one of the most personal.
Octavia Spencer gives a great performance as Oscar's mom—I wouldn't be surprised to see her back at the Academy Awards next year for this movie.
Instead of tackling large topics, "Fruitvale Station" is mostly about one man and his last day. It's vicious and beautiful in the same breath—allowing for sorrow to manifest; but also showing the little moments of happiness that exist even in the midnight hours of someone's life.

Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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