Directed by Ryan Coogler
Early in the morning on New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was shot in the back, following a scuffle on a train, by a BART officer in Oakland. By any standard, Grant—unarmed and handcuffed—was a victim; protests and trials followed. The non-documentary film Fruitvale Station, named for the stop where the shooting took place, mostly avoids the tumult that followed the shooting, though it can't resist continuing just past the end of Oscar's life, peeking at the devastation his death brought to his family, including his longtime girlfriend, small daughter, and watchful mother (Octavia Spencer).
For most of the movie, though, writer-director Ryan Coogler follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on New Year's Eve, 2008—the last day of his life—as he celebrates his mother's birthday, tries to quit dealing pot, argues with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and dotes on his daughter (Ariana Neal). Examining anyone's final 24 hours on Earth with hindsight will lend significance to otherwise mundane-looking events, and Coogler understands that accidentally haunting quality. Sometimes he seems too aware of it, going overboard with portent: as Oscar leaves his daughter for a sleepover, she gets scared of the fireworks in the distance that she hears as gunshots. Similarly, a single scene that cuts to a year earlier, with mother visiting her son in prison, bookended by shots of Oscar in waterfront contemplation, isn't worth the break.
Coogler excels, though, in observing the weighty small moments, like a supermarket conversation Oscar strikes up with a pretty young woman about how to prepare for a fish fry—just on the border of friendliness and wandering-eye flirtation. Late in the movie, Oscar and his friends are stuck on a train close to midnight, and the packed car erupts into a spontaneous New Year's celebration, chased shortly thereafter with a lovely following shot up an escalator and out onto the streets of San Francisco. More than the standard (though emotionally wrenching) reactions to the tragedy that follows, this drives home the situation's horror. At its best, Fruitvale Station transcends standard (though well-assembled) handheld realism and reaches the poetry of biography in miniature.
Opens July 12