Picking a Best Picture winner in July is like picking an apple in July: too soon. But that’s what Joseph Gordon-Levitt did with Ryan Coogler‘s new film Fruitvale Station (2013). For whatever reason, the last two times I’ve gone to the Angelicka, I lose the will to review the movie–it happened last year with Silver Linings Playbook (2012), so I know it’s the place–so I thank you Mr. G-L for giving me the starting point I needed. The movie got a pretty strong response from some people in the audience. The screen faded to black and I heard some loud sniffles. They weren’t coming from my nose. I got up and left the theater and nobody else seemed to be moving. It felt like being the first one to leave church. The eyes of God are upon you and even though you’re in your rights, people are judging you for your eagerness to go. I wasn’t eager, it’s just the end of the movie. Fruitvale Station ended on an unintentionally sour note.
Someone is filming an unpleasant scene at a subway station. The police are being really harsh with a group of young guys. Pushing them around, then one gets hit, they put him face down on the ground, clearly crushing his neck, everyone watching is wittering at the police, the cop is acting like the man isn’t complying, he takes a quick step up and CRACK! Twenty-four hours earlier, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is having a little argument with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their little girl Tatiana (Ariana Neal) comes in because she can’t get to sleep. They’re clearly a pretty functional unit despite the fact that the two parents are clearly very young. The next morning, Oscar drives Tatiana to school and Sophina to work and then goes about his business getting things for his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. It’s New Years Eve and Oscar has a private resolution with himself to get his life in order. That night, Sophina wants to go out for the fireworks and partying and Oscar’s mother convinces him that it’s safer to take the BART, the San Francisco metro system, to avoid drunken driving.
This is an interesting movie in that you know where everything is heading. If you know the premise to the movie, you’ve begun to prepare yourself before you got into the theater, but from the first minute we all know. Every moment, then, is pregnant with that knowledge. Every mention of the train, talk of the future, little Tatiana’s worries, and even the quotidian moments are loaded with the sad reality that Oscar will be dead by the morning. In an interesting way, when Oscar does things at odds with that reality, like when he decides to get his life in order and shows how he’s going to take his relationship with Sophina to the next level, are the most satisfying. At least there’s some hope there.
The script from Coogler is worth noting because of its solid structure. From what I gave as the premise (and it is 75% of the movie), you wouldn’t think that there was much of a plot and you’d be right. But what there is, is remarkably tight and well told. The story takes only one step outside of the 36 hour period and that one piece serves at least four purposes. Nothing else in the film matches that, but it’s enough to show that Coogler isn’t messing around.
The performances are sure to get a lot of praise and I’d like to add my voice to those in support of Jordan. He was really good in the two things I’ve seen of his, the first season of The Wire (2002) and Chronicle (2012), and he brings the same kind of realistic medium energy to Fruitvale Station. Ariana Neal was a scene stealer as Oscar’s daughter. Diaz, also good. Her being a real person does complicate things, but she was a believable slightly immature mother. Octavia Spencer, I suspect, is going to get the lion’s share of the love, but I’m not sure that that’s appropriate. Obviously, I had an outlier’s opinion with respect to the theater audience who were wetting themselves with emotion, but her key scene is not perfectly shot or perfectly acted. The camera plops on the other side of a sheet of glass (dumb) while Spencer just jumps right for that heaving sob. It was inartful, I felt.
And that’s in contrast to the rest of the movie which was quite artful. Somehow nothing was really happening and yet I was totally engrossed in the film. It was shot close (Rachel Morrison) and briskly paced. So long as you go quickly, even if it’s to nowhere, it gives the illusion of movement at the least. But it isn’t going nowhere, it’s following Oscar. The central goal of the film is to make us identify with Oscar, understand his context, and get upset by how things turn out. A fuller film would have followed the police during their day before the shooting and the absence of any positive or even human characterizations for these people does open the film up to criticism.
There is nothing that could have justified what happened, but if you’re going to movies in search of allotting blame, then you’re a fool and you might as well have stayed at home and wrang your hands about the Zimmerman trial. We should try to understand what happened. If Oscar had spent the day going around Oakland, making drug deals, cheating on his girlfriend, engaged in acts of wanton cruelty, and then ended up where he did, what would that movie have been saying? That movie would have been saying that you reap what you sow and he had it coming. This movie had a better message of bad things happen to mostly-good people, so [do the right thing]. I’m not sure how we grow from that.
But that’s not the sour note I teased you with. The sour note is when the film essentially ended and it was doing its epilogue. Right after that, it showed a 2013 shot of the real Tatiana at a rally looking emotional, probably crying. I know it was Tatiana because the word Tatiana appeared below her face. No one else was shown. I think you can salvage that moment by saying that Tatiana is who the movie is really about, about her inheriting this world and about giving her a narrative of her father that is hopeful and loving. But that’s not how I took it in the theater. I saw that and I thought, why not give us a shot of Sophina, Wanda, the mother, or the nameless cop that shot Oscar? Maybe because they’re just not quite as cute as Tatiana is and Coogler wants us to cry.