In Fruitvale Station, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler follows the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, best known for his role as Wallace in HBO’s The Wire) during the 22-year-old’s last day on Earth on the last day of 2008. As the clock winds down on the year and his life, Oscar, an unemployed ex-con, makes the rounds in the Bay Area, trying to do right while often doing the opposite.
He smokes weed, tells lies, gets into fights, cares for his daughter, comforts a dying dog, helps a stranger select the right fish for frying and generally behaves like a complex human being. By the end, when Oscar is shot by a transit officer at the BART stop that gives the film its title, all of these disparate events coalesce to form the portrait of waste — of dreams permanently, and unnecessarily, deferred.
In a brilliant performance, Jordan plays Oscar as a young man who has emerged from adolescence physically but is still struggling to do so emotionally. His little goatee, broad shoulders and shaky voice all point toward this in-between state that most of us call our early 20s. But it’s in Jordan’s eyes that Oscar’s growing pains truly take shape. They can harden with anger or soften with kindness, sadness and fear, often in the same scene, as when he scoops up the dying dog.
Indeed, although that scene is a bit too symbolic, Coogler films it with such dispassion that it feels too real to be a simple dramatic device. In fact, Fruitvale Station — which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — not only succeeds because of Jordan’s honest representation of Oscar’s flawed character, but also because of Coogler’s unwillingness to delve into sentimentality. Like our best documentarians, he takes us behind the headlines without losing their clinical delivery of the facts.
In the wake of George Zimmerman’s exoneration in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, many will be tempted to view this film through the prism of race. That’s not wrong — one wonders if the cops would’ve been so aggressive had Oscar been white — but what’s striking about Fruitvale Station is its depiction of life’s pressures. Oscar is a man being pulled, and pulling himself, in a thousand directions. He has a sister who needs help with the rent, a desire to stop selling drugs but an inability to make it to his straight gig on time, and a young daughter and girlfriend named Sophina (a terrific Melonie Diaz) who need him to step up. (“You think life’s a fucking joke,” Sophina says at one point — an admonishment that takes on a cruel irony in light of what’s to come.)
Along with Sophina, Oscar’s mother (played with touching sincerity by Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer) represents one of the many good influences in his life. She offers a pathway for him to tap his potential and reap its rewards. But Oscar’s criminal past and temper collide with a criminal, hair-trigged BART cop to snuff it out. What a waste.
FRUITVALE STATION Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, directed by Ryan Coogler, rated R, 84 minutes