The pop culture mantra to take life one day at a time provides both the framework and the thesis of filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s deeply felt feature debut Fruitvale Station, which nonetheless winds up getting smashed to pieces in its arresting eighty-five minute running time.
In Fruitvale, Coogler takes a docudrama/neorealist approach to tell the fact-based tale of twenty-two year old California father who was gunned down in a gross miscarriage of justice under heightened circumstances in the wee small hours of New Year’s Eve 2009 morning by a flustered BART officer running on adrenaline and fear.
And although it opens with the horrific cell phone video documented footage of the actual shooting, Coogler has much more on his mind than that one awful snapshot that ushered in the end of a man’s life.
Instead of dwelling on the senseless nature of Oscar Grant’s death and the questionable handling of events that would follow in the upsetting judicial aftermath of an obvious case of racial profiling (made that much timelier in its theatrical release which coincided with the Trayvon Martin verdict), Coogler sets the clock back twenty-four hours to show what a difference a day makes.
A beautiful thought-provoking work of cinematic portraiture that focuses on the most otherwise mundane, monotonous aspects of life from driving to shopping to haunting effect, Frutivale makes us feel the weight of Grant’s future loss as more than just an anonymous name on the evening news by showing us the amount of love that exists in his large circle of friends and family.
And the multitude of interactions Grant has over the course of a day reveal a number of different sides of the exact same man in a way that’s relatable and authentically true to life as everybody experiences and relates to a person in a slightly different way than anyone else. And this phenomenon (along with many other ones with which we can instinctively identify) are all chronicled in this modern work that recalls Agnes Varda’s French New Wave classic Cleo From 5 to 7.
Managing to transcend what in someone else’s hands could’ve been a far too melancholic and heavy-handed film, Coogler (who also wrote Fruitvale) has achieved an impressive feat by producing a deceptively simplistic yet overwhelmingly powerful film that leaves an even greater impression on viewers after we press eject and have time to reflect on its significance for our lives.
Unwilling to emphasize the tragedy, Frutivale Station’s celebration of life serves as a lesson to all of us to cherish the here and now that’s so naturalistic that we’re not even aware of its power in a way that flies in the face of The Butler style pomp and circumstance filmmaking.
Challenging the idea that we must wait a full day or even – as the film would ironically hinge the most fateful changes on – a New Year to change our life, over the course of a long day, Oscar proves that we can always venture down a new path to start a new journey by any number of choices we make.
Whether it’s opting to help a complete stranger embark on a culinary adventure by phoning his grandmother to offer them advice to letting the lessons of past mistakes finally sink in to keep from selling a bag of weed despite financial obligations, Oscar finds himself tested on a number of levels during the course of a very important day.
Not content to only frame the events via a Cassavetes style depiction of American Neorealism –some artistic liberties are taken to uplift the film from its docudrama approach and lend a sense of poetry to the proceedings. This stylistic balance is best epitomized by a moving scene where Oscar comforts a stray dog before and after he’s hit by a car, which helps add an even greater existential weight to Oscar’s eventual fate.
And while admittedly it’s slightly on-the-nose in its narrative convenience, Coogler doesn’t allow himself to punctuate that moment longer than he needs to in order to drive the messy, beautiful irony of it home before quickly moving back (along with Oscar) to the tasks that remain in his busy day.
To his great credit, every moment of onscreen peace feels earned as – true to life – Grant is a man juggling many responsibilities and relationships at any given moment including his undeniably loving yet slightly strained relationship with the mother of his bright, four year old daughter.
And matching actor Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic chameleon-like turn in the lead role as a man who goes from charming to conflicted at a moment’s notice is the always wondrous indie film MVP Melonie Diaz as his true love Sophina.
Though the chemistry of the two leads sizzles from their first shared screen, in reality we’re quick to discover that the couple they’re portraying have hit a slight rough patch that comes to a head over the course of the film.
Understandably enchanted by his magnetism, Sophina finds her heart pulled in several directions during the exact same day – having a hard time fully trusting Oscar not only because he has a habit of only telling her what he needs to when he needs to do so but also because he’d cheated on her offscreen before the film’s events took place.
Moving a year back in time when Grant was in jail to show us how much has changed (and how some of the repercussions of his old life have yet to go away), we witness a heartbreaking visit from his beloved mom (Octavia Spencer) that have challenged him to go straight and set him on the path we find him on today.
Masterful in his presentation of the two separate days and the way that the concept of time becomes in Coogler’s hands as fluid as the ocean Grant parks by in an important scene, one of Fruitvale’s most impressive achievements is in the way that lines and moments in that particular flashback echo and reverberate in a multitude of ways the closer we get to its stunning final scenes.
Produced by Forest Whitaker (whose own loosely biographical starring role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler shares a street date with this superlative release), although Fruitvale is succinct, not a single frame is wasted in Coogler’s auspicious feature filmmaking debut.
Through its devotion to honoring the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station acts as a mirror for the audience, forcing us to check any stereotypes or preconceptions at the door. Likewise, in its summation that no one is one thing to all people, Fruitvale also makes it clear that we could just as easily be any person in the film if we’d been born at a different time or a different place.
Arguing that we have a far greater capacity for goodness than evil and the gift of humanity lies in our ability to choose good over evil countless times in any given day (as opposed to one day at a time), Coogler takes what could’ve been a straightforward moral lesson movie and presents these ideas with a fresh urgency that makes us feel like we’ve never heard them before.
Instead of watching this as a film that asks us to hold events therein at arm’s length, Fruitvale Station brings you aboard and includes you in each life-like frame for the good times and the bad.
Transferred with breathtaking clarity in this 1080p high definition Blu-ray, Fruitvale Station’s award-season timed release boasts behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews and two additional formats (including DVD and Ultraviolet HD) that fittingly make Coogler’s Sundance and Cannes Film Festival award-winner viewable on the same handheld devices that captured the beginning of Oscar Grant’s untimely end.
A vital work that celebrates not only his life but the existence of life in general that’s sure to inspire you to put your arms around those you love, Fruitvale Station is the definition of must-see movie-making and one of the very finest films of 2013.
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