Review: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Reaches Deep Into the Heart

Michael B. Jordan in 'Fruitvale Station' (The Weinstein Co.)
Michael B. Jordan in ‘Fruitvale Station’ (The Weinstein Co.)

It’s hard to be a saint in the city, and Oscar Grant ain’t no saint.

He has served time in prison. He has dealt drugs. He’s just lost his entry-level job at a supermarket because he couldn’t show up on time. He has a hair-trigger temper. He has broken his mother’s heart. His girlfriend is cautious about making plans with him for the future.

But he’s trying. He loves his mother, he loves his girlfriend, and (especially) he loves his little daughter Tatiana. She is the joy of his life, and he wants to be a better father / boyfriend / son. He wants to be a better friend to his friends, he wants to be a productive, law-abiding member of his community.

Oscar Grant is 22 years old.

Fruitvale Station depicts one day in the life of Oscar Grant, beginning shortly after midnight on December 31, 2008, in the Fruitdale neighborhood in Oakland, California. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, the film is based on a true story, and if you’re familiar with how things turned out that day, as I was, you might anticipate that the film’s dramatic impact will be lessened, as I did.

I was wrong.

Beyond the facts of what may (or may not) have happened that day, Fruitvale Station paints a multi-hued portrait of Grant, colorful and decidedly opinionated. More than anything else, the film argues for the value of a single human life. Michael B. Jordan’s extremely convincing and finely-nuanced performance as Grant goes a long way toward generating empathy for him. Jordan never comes across as though he is acting; he is Oscar Grant, a man whose many layers are sometimes laid bare, one by one, and sometimes, all at once, rising to the surface in a tumultuous manner.

The cast, led by Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother, is uniformly splendid and heartbreaking. In his directorial debut, Coogler takes an occasional false step, but nearly always makes the choice that favors cinematic authenticity and emotional truth.

It is sometimes easy to glance through the headlines and absorb the news of the day without giving much thought to the consequences for the people involved. In the final analysis, we are all limited in our emotional capacity for dealing with our own lives, much less those of strangers.

It is sometimes good, though, to stop and watch a movie like Fruitvale Station, which raises questions about the human condition that are not easily answered. The power of the movie kept hitting me in waves after I walked out of the theater, and even now I find it difficult to express why it touched me to the extent that it did, and is still doing.

Your emotional mileage, of course, may vary.

The film opens on Friday, July 19, at Angelika Dallas, Angelika Plano, and AMC’s The Parks at Arlington 18.

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