Opening with actual cell phone footage of the events that took place on New Year’s Day 2009, Fruitvale Station cranks up the tension immediately. On a train platform we see four black youths sitting against the concrete wall with several cops standing in front of them. One attempts to stand, he is handcuffed then pushed back down on his stomach. A scuffle ensues followed by the sounds of a gunshot and screams from passengers on the nearby train car.
One of the four youths on the platform is Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). Jumping back to the morning of New Year’s Eve 2008, we witness the day in the life of Oscar starting with a conversation he has with his girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz). Their conversation covers topics such as: Oscar’s fidelity; the birthday party for his mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) that evening; and their four-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Like flies on the wall, we not only observe this conversation, but tag along as he travels around Oakland leading up to that fateful platform encounter.
At each location we learn a little more about Oscar as his character significantly grows and develops. We see the softer side of him through the attention and care he gives his daughter; the help he offers a young woman at the supermarket, and the compassion he shows towards a wounded animal while at a gas station. We also see the other side of Oscar mainly through flashbacks. It is clear he has made some choices in the past that have not been positive. His stubborn, and often confrontational, nature has even garnered him a few enemies. In fact, it is an exchange with an old rival that sets in motion the tragic event that is at the core of the film.
First time director Ryan Coogler delivers an excellent script that provides both gripping drama and genuine moments of humour. One funny exchange involves Oscar’s sister giving him specific instructions on the card she wants him to buy for their mother, which prompts Oscar to do the complete opposite. Another superb moment occurs when his mother realizes that he is driving while talking to her on the phone. Oscar tries to convince his mother that he is using a hands-free device by tucking the cell phone under his hat.
Michael B. Jordan is outstanding in his first leading movie role. He is on screen for almost every frame of the feature and handles it with ease. Octavia Spencer, who also has a producer credit, is particularly strong in the film. Her work especially shines in two specific scenes linked by a particular act. It should also be noted that Melonie Diaz is very good as Sophia. She brings out both the inquisitive and fiercely loyal sides of Sophia, making her a more well-rounded character.
Ryan Coogler has crafted a well-paced drama that would have been equally impressive as a documentary. The scenes work extremely well and each one feels essential to the overall story. Fruitvale Station is a film that I can definitely recommend and is destined to be on many top ten lists at year’s end.