Fruitvale Station Review


Fruitvale Station, from first-time director Ryan Coogler, proves there’s power in cinematic simplicity. The film needs just a two sentence plot description; Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) was shot and killed by a security guard for San Francisco’s public railway system (called BART) shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, 2009. Fruitvale Station is the story of Grant’s final day.

Because Coogler focuses on the mundane goings-on of an ordinary guy, the shocking events of his film’s conclusion pack quite an emotional wallop. We’re lured in by the story of a guy celebrating his mother’s birthday, playing with his daughter, and dreaming of a drug-free future. Then, he’s killed—in horrifying fashion. And you’ll be left in your seat seething with anger, fighting to hold back tears.

Adding to the film’s authenticity, the Grant portrayed in Fruitvale Station is far from saint-like. The film opens with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, excellent), cussing him out for being unfaithful. (He gives the old “It was a one-time thing, baby” excuse.) But he really does love her. We flashback to his time in jail when he fights with a fellow prisoner in front of his mother (Octavia Spencer, also excellent), who tells him she’s not coming to see him in here ever again. But he learns from that. We see him arrange a drug deal, but he calls it off at the last minute. It’s a constant struggle for Oscar between his hopes/dreams and his instincts. Jobless, he needs to put food on the table, and selling pot is something he knows how to do. But he can’t keep falling back on illegal behavior, and his better side wins out all through Fruitvale Station.

Lest you think Coogler is speculating about the events of December 31, 2008 and January 1, 2009, his research was extensive, and according to most accounts, Fruitvale Station is admirably accurate. Of course, some sequences were added for dramatic effect or thematic resonance (like the dog scene about midway through the 85-minute picture). The story of the fight that breaks out on the BART train, too, was manipulated (at least partially because no one seems to know exactly what happened on the train before Grant’s killing). None of these fabrications rings particularly false, however, and Fruitvale Station‘s believability—its clear place in the real world—adds greatly to its emotional impact.

Of course, there’s not an impact whatsoever if Diaz, Spencer, and especially Michael B. Jordan aren’t at the absolute top of their games. Young Jordan broke through on Friday Night Lights and scored some cinematic points with last year’s deceptively good Chronicle. Here, he’s given the ball, and boy does he run with it. This isn’t quite as in-your-face a performance as you might expect for a film of this nature. Of course, his Oscar doesn’t know he’s going to be killed in a few hours, so there’s not really a chance for a big, go-for-broke scene. Still, Jordan and Coogler appear to be quite in sync as the young actor’s m.o. is to make Oscar Grant as nakedly real as possible. Mission accomplished.

The two ladies, however, get their scenes and very well might land Oscar nominations in the seemingly weak (always) Best Supporting Actress category. Spencer seems the likelier case. In a role that seems a little familiar, she brings a hardened edge without the sass that won her gold for The Help. It’s a serious performance for a serious role in a serious movie, and that’s all before her son gets gunned down.

Fruitvale Station doesn’t quite reach the dramatic high it’s reaching for, but that’s no reason to penalize it or to not single out each and every successful aspect of what’s ultimately a very good motion picture. Great acting and a terrific screenplay transform what could have been a well-intentioned but cloying lionization into something much more thoughtful.

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6 Responses to Fruitvale Station Review

  1. Alex Withrow August 19, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Great review. I was wondering about that dog scene – whether it actually happened or not. Interesting to hear that Coogler included it himself. But, like you said, knowing this, it doesn’t lessen the film at all for me.

    I really hope this one is remembered come awards time.

    • John Gilpatrick August 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks a lot, Alex. If I remember correctly, Coogler said the dog incident happened to someone he knew. And I totally agree: takes nothing away from the film.

      As far as awards, my gut says Spencer gets a nod, but that might be it, unfortunately. Best Actor is loaded, and Jordan seems like he’ll be on the outside looking in. But stranger things have happened.

  2. Dan O. August 14, 2013 at 12:12 am

    Good review John. Could have gone a bit deeper for me, but still struck an emotional-chord with me. Better yet, doesn’t end as grimly as some may suggest. It shows us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we just can’t let it fade away and still stand up for ourselves.

    • John Gilpatrick August 15, 2013 at 8:19 am

      Thanks, Dan. I tend to agree that it could have gone a little deeper. It wasn’t a film that stuck with me quite as long as I’d maybe expected it to.

  3. Courtney August 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Great review! I know the scene with the dog was a fictional addition to the film, but I didn’t realize that no one knew the cause for the outbreak on the tram. Interesting. I hope to see Coogler’s name come up during award season…I think he did a tremendous job with this story.

    • John Gilpatrick August 15, 2013 at 8:22 am

      Thanks, Courtney! From what I’d read, there were a lot of conflicting reports about what happened on the train, but certainly what happened in the movie was fictional. The young woman who Oscar met at the grocery store and later bumped into on the train was fictional, but he had, at one point in his life, called up his grandmother to help a friend with a gumbo recipe.


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