Yes, a star is born. There are plenty of good reasons to see and experience Fruitvale Station. But perhaps the greatest pleasure is watching the birth of a star—Michael B. Jordan. The film, a favorite at Cannes and Sundance, is an accomplished bit of filmmaking in itself. But it will likely be remembered as the film that made Jordan a star and let the film-going public know that there is an actor of talent to watch, we hope, for a long time to come.
Fruitvale Station is the true, heart-breaking and maddening story of the last day and death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old San Francisco Bay area resident with a serious girlfriend, a young daughter, a sketchy job history, an on-and-off relationship with selling drugs, and a mother who loves him and that he loves right back. There’s nothing special about Oscar, and there’s everything special about him, at least the way Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler present him. He’s conflicted, complicated, not quite grown up, and comes across as a real human being in every scene. He loves his girlfriend, and is fiercely loyal, except when he’s not. He needs to work, but loses a job by showing up late once too often. He’s kind, thoughtful, and lies easily. He is presented in the film as beginning to put his drug-selling past behind him, which adds a high degree of tragic irony to the last altercation that leads to his untimely end.
The film is done in a strongly realist way, with the camera going right to the edge of tolerable shakiness. We feel as if we’re simply observing real people living real lives, without a lot of moralizing or politicking, a feat in itself. The ending is all the stronger for the lack of a high horse or overheated visual presentation. Since the film begins with the real video cell phone footage of Grant’s death, there is a layer of doom that overlays everything we see. But the humanity and life of the characters and what they do is so palpable that it almost fights against the inevitable climax, adding a creative tension throughout the film that’s both personally disturbing and artistically exciting to experience. [Spoiler alert] The only near misstep is a scene with a dog that is mirrored later in the film, and soaks the main character in a martyrdom that is unnecessary; perhaps less would have been more here.
In a film of strong performances, Jordan stands out, and for more reasons than being the lead. He registers as deeply felt and real while at the same time unsure of what his character is thinking and feeling at times. Oscar is just 22 and is sure of only a few things: he loves his mom and daughter. After that he’s mostly loyal to the mother of his child, enjoys his friends, doesn’t know what he wants to do, and is finding growing up difficult. Jordan captures all of that and more. In a mostly slice-of-life film, Jordan succeeds as presenting us with the most life-like character in the film.
Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for The Help and a co-producer her, nails her character almost as firmly as Jordan, though a bit of her Help character seems to slip in now and then in the early scenes, threatening ever so slightly to distract the viewer and thin out her character. But mostly, she inhabits the role with ease and strength, especially as the dramatic demands grow. Melonie Diaz as Grant’s girlfriend is solid and gives a near-showcase performance herself. But this will be remembered primarily as the film that will kick-start Jordan’s already promising career.
One rare but happy result of the realist approach to the film is the presentation of Spencer’s character as a Christian believer. Her speech and her quick and muttered prayers when facing stress are refreshingly true to life, and her two praying scenes (grace at dinner and prayers for Oscar’s recovery when it’s already too late) are afforded the kind of respectful treatment that Hollywood generally doesn’t know how to handle. Generally these kinds of scenes apparently can’t be done without mockery or presenting a kind of laughable generic “Christianity” that no one practices (except in the minds of irreligious screenwriters who clearly haven’t a clue). I can’t remember the last time I saw a Christian character presented with respect and without irony or suspicion in a mainstream Hollywood film outside of Tyler Perry’s work, and here the acting is much better. Her character’s treatment adds one more level of reality to a film that depends on it for its power.
As a polemic on any number of issues, the film lands a bit on the soft side, and again, may be all the more powerful for it. It could have been grittier and angrier, and the actual murder could have been more directly and bitterly presented. Like the grainy cell images in the beginning, we don’t see everything that happened and don’t exactly know how things went from bad to worst. But the effect is that Oscar’s humanity is elevated in the process. He’s not reduced to an issue, or a cog in a message machine. Some may argue with that approach. But it takes the film up one more notch in what it refuses to do, and therefore in what it succeeds in doing for Oscar’s humanity and his memory.
One final note [and possible spoiler]: the arrival of Kevin Durand as the first police officer we see at the beginning of what we know is the final sequence. It’s the kind of set-up for a twist that is artful and shocking at the same time. Just look at Durand–he must be the bad guy, right? It’s one more good move in a film that should be studied as an example of an issue film that can take a different, perhaps more effective, approach to controversial material.