Sundance Film Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

1:25 AM

Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal in Fruitvale Station

Well I had only planned to write reviews on a select few films from Sundance, but as it turns out, Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (which I saw on my second day at the festival), is now slated to appear in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this May. As with many of the films I saw at Sundance, my interest in this film was peaked with buzz I heard while waiting in extensive lines for other films. So, while waiting to see The Kings of Summer (review yo.), I chatted with a couple from Florida who thought that I was such a "lovely Canadian girl" and who wanted to set me up with their Engineer student son. When they weren't too busy talking up their Godsend of a son or trying to figure out the logistics of where exactly in 'The Canada' my school was located, they were raving about Fruitvale Station. Naturally, I had to see it, and naturally I caught the film on its second showing and so I had to brave this:

It's like Purgatory except instead of going to Heaven or Hell, 
you either get to see the film or you don't
It was totally worth waiting in line  for though. Fruitvale Station ended up being one of the stars of the festival, going on to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The story is based off the real life of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by a police officer in 2009 on the platform of the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, California. With the widespread use of camera phones, the incident was broadcast on YouTube, leading to public outcry over unnecessary police brutality. The director and screenwriter, Ryan Coogler stitches together what would be the last day in the life of Oscar Grant from both actual reports by people he had seen that day, and with some creativity on Coogler's part in imagining what Oscar might have done while alone.

In his last day, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) takes his young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal) to daycare, earnestly tries to get his job back, visits his mother (played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) on her birthday and then celebrates New Year's with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and friends. It's on the train back from a New Year's celebration downtown that the film unfolds with its events of the Fruitvale train station. 

When documentary and fiction meet in a film, like it does in Fruitvale Station, it's difficult to gauge even our own personal reactions. In the last few minutes of the film, I could hear the people around me sniffling or gulping back emotions, and then see them jump to their feet when Coogler stepped onstage, leading an seemingly never-ending standing ovation. In its 90-minute running time, less than 24 hours pass by in the film, creating a concentrated portrait of Oscar Grant - and it's an emotional one. From the very beginning, the audience knows of Oscar's fate and so are deeply emotionally involved in his life that even in the opening moments with Oscar, we feel that he is destined for something better,  or at least we hope he is. As Oscar's day unfolds, our premonitions of Oscar's good character are confirmed with each little gesture or kind word from our main figure, making his final moments unbearable painful. I don't want to suggest that too many liberties were taken in regards to Oscar's character, though his almost saintly image, while cinematic gold, isn't entirely believable in a true-story scenario. With Michael B. Jordan from HBO's The Wire playing the lead role of Oscar Grant, and Octavia Spencer in the role of his mother, a compelling cast framework is set up, with a standout performance from Ariana Neal, playing Oscar's young daughter, Tatiana. This incredibly strong cast makes for a vivid and certainly emotion-inducing portrait of a tragic event. 

While the film might have better served as a documentary rather than a dramatic representation is debatable, its service however as a powerful tribute to the memory of Oscar Grant and in illustrating the perhaps prejudiced motives behind police brutality is beautifully constructed and well worth seeing. 

My rating: 7 cats out of 10



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