INDIEWATCH: ‘Fruitvale Station’ (mostly) worth the hype

“Fruitvale Station” was one of the most anticipated indie films of the year for me.
It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Best First Film at Cannes. That mixed with the hoopla around the film’s star, Michael B. Jordan, and I was ready for an experience.
And I got one.

“Fruitvale” is a look at the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was shot in 2009 while handcuffed, lying face down in the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway station in Oakland, Calif. That said, knowing the events of the shooting won’t diminish this trip into one man’s humanity.

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz in "Fruitvale Station."

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz in “Fruitvale Station.”

It opens with Oscar (Jordan) and Sophina (Melonie Diaz) sharing their New Year’s resolutions, and his is to stop selling “trees.” As “Fruitvale” unfolds, he’s fallen on hard times: he’s lost his job and the rent is due, and we watch Oscar contemplate the right choices. Watching him engage with his girlfriend, daughter and mother, feel-goody love flows from the screen. But writer/director Ryan Coogler was mindful not to overdo it — he establishes Oscar as a good man through tiny and realistic exchanges.

Oscar calls his grandmother for a grocery store customer who needs help with a fish fry. He has mercy on a stray dog. He sneaks his daughter an extra pack of fruit snacks. Watching this character so closely, I was a huge fan of this guy’s heart.

Octavia Spencer in “Fruitvale.”

That had a lot to do with Jordan’s portrayal, and the cast is full of heavy-hitters: Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Diaz. In one pivotal scene, Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Spencer) visits him in prison. Jordan emits tender and loving engagement before flipping the switch to rage when confronted by another inmate. I was shocked he’d thrown down in front of his mom, but it felt realistic and believable.

Jordan delivered in every scene with the same emotional depth and candor. Spencer worked as the heart of this film, bringing crushed, nuanced emotion with a slight crack of the voice, and Diaz can bounce between sassy indignation and forgiveness at the drop of a hat.

This film was well-written, as Coogler guides audiences through Oscar’s history through some key flashbacks. The cinematography felt gritty and the dialogue genuine. It’s obvious Coogler knows effective storytelling, though one criticism I have is there’s too much foreshadowing to Oscar’s shooting.

“The fireworks sound like guns”: Oscar (Jordan) talks to his daughter one last time.

Oscar’s daughter is scared because the fireworks sound like gunshots. He asks his girlfriend to stay home that fateful night, but she declines. He has a chance meeting with a business owner who could change his career path for the better. It felt a bit overdone, forced and possibly manipulative in an effort to ramp up the tragedy of an already heartbreaking ending.

That said, this is Coogler’s first film. The shooting touched his home community, and he lived through the riots that exploded afterward, so it makes sense that this story bears a lot of weight for him. This film haunted me for days, so I’ll watch anything Coogler makes from now on.

“Fruitvale Station” lifts you to an emotional high of love and redemption then slams you down to face the realities of injustice. One commenter on the DVD extra features said “Once we see everyone as human beings, we’ll all be better off.” I think raising awareness to that may be “Fruitvale’s” greatest achievement.

It’s definitely worth a watch, though have a sunny movie on deck as a palate cleanser.

Grade: B-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix rental.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

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