Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Day In The Life: All Roads Lead To Fruitvale Station

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

Director: Ryan Coogler

Reviewed: 16 February 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

A funny thing about life is that sometimes cliches uttered have the sting of truth: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." An optimist considers that phrase and believes in the endless human capacity for self-reinvention: we can alter the course of our own destinies. No matter who we have disappointed and let down, a new day brings with it new hope that we can free ourselves of the past and start anew. A fresh start is what the troubled protagonist of Ryan Coogler's bold new film Fruitvale Station desires. Coogler shows a day in the life of young Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an Oakland man who loves his daughter Tatiana (Ariana O'Neal), prepares for his mother Wanda's birthday (Octavia Spencer), fights to get his old job back, wrestles with his drug dealing past and time spent in prison, considers serious commitment with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and carves his own path through the world of New Year's Eve 2008. To say anything more about the film would not be appropriate; its surprises and turns make the omnipresent trains in the background deeply resonant, and to know the film's destination is to deeply imbue all that comes before with gravity. Anyone knowing little of Oscar's story is jolted right away from the film's opening sequence captured on a cell phone camera.

Besides crafting a deeply emotional film, one that depicts the pain and joy of family up close and personal, Coogler has done something else. He's elicited a marvelous performance from Michael B. Jordan, known previously to me from The Wire, capturing Oscar's rage, kindness, ability to switch from one mode to another, and his complex heart. To play Oscar as one-note would be a mistake. As Whitman said, we "contain multitudes," and Oscar's desire to change his life may remain just that: a desire. But desire is important.  Sometimes all of our actions don't make sense when put next to each other.  Jordan carries the film on his back with Coogler's camera often providing over-the-shoulder shots of Oscar walking and driving and thinking. Octavia Spencer is no less spectacular as Wanda, Oscar's fiercely loving mother, and her work here proves that she is an actress to always watch. There are troubling developments in the film that linger: Oscar's angry hand placed on his grocery store boss as he demands his old job, a near-violent interaction in a prison visiting room with far-reaching implications, and the stains of an injured dog's blood on Oscar's white t-shirt as he carries it out of the road.  Fruitvale Station's title, which is essentially its ending point, is emotional and unforgettable in its awfulness.

Violence arrives on the front pages of our newspapers everyday, and its effects ravage communities, families, and individuals. Coogler's film offers few answers to our national epidemic of violence, but in its close, dignified look at a complex person struggling to achieve agency, he has crafted one of the best films of the year, a film where the sight of a family uniting for a birthday dinner brought tears to my eyes just as much as the film's devastating conclusion.  Fruitvale Station is a film wrongly ignored by the Academy Awards that demands to be seen and felt.  There are no easy answers, though.

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