Craig's First Take: "Fruitvale Station"

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The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
3.5

If movies are windows into society then “Fruitvale Station” is yet more proof that very little is actually changing. It's a movie about a tragedy, yes, but even before that it’s a true life movie about a black youth just holding on by a thread.

He’ Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordon), a former prison inmate in the Bay area trying to hold it together and be the man his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), daughter (Ariana Neal), and mother (Octavia Spencer) need him to be. He’s kind and a bit of a charmer, something not lost on his girlfriend who knows one of his vices is not being able to keep it in his pants. But he finds himself out of work, at times driven to desperate measures including threatening an old boss to give him his old job back. He needs it; the threat of turning to drugs again constantly looms in the background.

“Fruitvale” was a big winner at the Sundance festival this past January and it’s pretty simple to see why. No, it’s not the best movie and yes the fact that it all feels very familiar and you know where it’s going is part of the reason for that. But it’s the kind of social criticism that riles people up, the kind about a man trying to turn it all around and do good (although there is a scene here where he comforts a dead dog that feels like overkill), except the re-integration process from prison back to society is not what it should be. Neither is the methods used by police in calming a volatile situation, like the one that takes place in the last half of “Fruitvale”, where an incident on the BART train station line results in undeniable excessive force.

Director Ryan Coogler, who has worked as a counselor with incarcerated youth, tells this story in a straightforward way that will still put your heart in your throat at certain points, but you wish he had focused more on the aftermath of this 2009 incident rather than just explain it in a written narration at the end of the film.

Jordan, best known from the super hero film “Chronicle”, has the charm, intensity, and light-hearted touch to make this dutiful family man someone to root for but it’s actually Spencer’s level-headed, cautious mom who steals the movie, particularly a scene in a prison visiting area early on and later during a vigil at the hospital. She’s nothing less than powerful here. If nothing else “Fruitvale” feels like an old-hat story, one we’re all sick of hearing, but at the same time it’s important to keep hearing it; seeing the heartbreak, feeling the anger of one more family not allowed to be whole.