Monday, July 29, 2013

Film Review: Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station

When Hollywood and the mainstream muscle do a film like Fruitvale Station, it is inevitably an emotionally manipulative work that relies on broad strokes and obvious cliche's to blast its point across - something akin to slapping the viewer in the face and screaming "look at this movie and believe what we are telling you!" Sure, the big boys in SoCal can make an entertaining film - one with all the vim and vigor necessary to thrill the masses - and once and a while, they can even pull off a legitimate solid motion picture experience, but when it comes to the kind of story being told in Fruitvale Station, these big boys are woefully lacking in tact and true emotion, and most of all, in humanity.  Luckily for us, Fruitvale Station is not a big Hollywood blockbuster, but rather a small independent film, and a damn solid piece of cinematic work to boot.

Following the real life story of Oscar Grant, a young African American man who was shot and killed by a white transit cop in Oakland's Fruitvale district train station, in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, first time director Ryan Coogler has given us a brutally honest depiction of the last day in the life of Grant, and unlike most anything put out by the major studios, a film of powerful emotion - a film that will have anyone with a brain or a heart thinking for days afterward.  The film stars former soap actor, and regular on both The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Michael B. Jordan (some might even recall him from the unheralded but surprisingly intriguing 2012 low budget superhero film Chronicle), as the aforementioned ill-fated Oscar, and the actor gives a performance so vibrant, yet so tempered with both humanity and humility, that people are already talking Oscar nomination.  But it is not the inevitable awards this talented young actor may procure come year's end, but the performance he gives here.  We see a young black man torn between two worlds, one of abject poverty and frequent stints in prison, and one of hope and a future with his girlfriend and little daughter, a man trying to do better for himself and those around him, but never does the film, nor Jordan's performance, ever wallow in the obvious cliche's that such a story and such a character more oft than not will do in the movies.  Instead we are given honesty and a real world character, not a movie caricature, and the film is so much better because of it.

Another aspect of the film that makes it feel so real, so honest, is the way Coogler's camera follows Grant and his friends around.  Hand held throughout a majority of the film, the camera doesn't just follow Grant around Oakland during the last few hours of his life, but seems to perform as just another set of eyes in the young man's circle of friends and family, essentially putting us smack dab in the middle of all that is happening, right up to and including the fateful moments on that train platform.  We the viewers feel everything that is happening to Oscar and his friends and family and it becomes more than just a mere movie to us. Along with Jordan's performance we also get Octavia Spencer, one of the producers of the film, handing in a stunning real world performance herself as Oscar's worried, and ultimately defeated mother.And Melonie Diaz, as Oscar's girlfriend and the mother of their little girl, is quite superb as well.  Both of these actresses give tragedy a brand new look, but if one wants to see the real look of tragedy just look at the face of seven year old Ariana Neal, as Oscar's baby girl.  We know the outcome of the film.  We know what is going to happen, and it is this building tension that layers even more onto the film, and makes it work even more brilliantly.

Produced by Forest Whitaker (the man responsible for getting the film financed) and eventually picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein, after its premiere at Sundance (an all-out bidding war was happening in Colorado), not to mention an award at Cannes for Best First Film, Fruitvale Station opened this week, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and the travesty of justice that has been perpetrated, and even though the cases are not the same, they are similar enough to bring yet another level of emotional reactions to the film.  This critic certainly sees several Oscar nominations in the film's not-so-distant future (Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, maybe even Director and Best Picture even) but beyond that, I see an honest portrayal of humanity and the tragic toll that society sometimes has in store.  As they are prone to say, Fruitvale Station is a must see motion picture indeed.

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