Friday, July 12, 2013

Real Life Tragedy: Fruitvale Station

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant's last day of life, from the morning of December 31st, 2008, to the morning of January 1st, 2009. The focus is purely on him, his final hours, and his interactions with his family and friends.

Being that this is a San Francisco newspaper, and the likelihood that you, dear reader, are from the Bay Area (or at least have an interest in local news) I'm going to assume you know the story of Oscar Grant and his death at the hands of BART police. I won't rehash the details here. If you need to know more, Wikipedia can probably help.

For those who don't know the story, and fear some kind of spoiler in regards to the movie, well, bad news. The ending begins the film, as it opens with the real footage of Grant being shot in the back, as recorded by one of a number of witnesses to that horrible night.

It's a jarring way to begin a movie, and the footage is no less shocking, four years later. But I think it's important that it's there, because ultimately, the real horror of that death is much more effective--indeed SHOULD be more effective--than any amount of dramatization that is ultimately placed on the story.

Michael B. Jordan, who has been outstanding in a series of roles on "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," and "Parenthood," is just as outstanding here as Oscar Grant. Grant is a young man obviously worn down by a life of little opportunity and bad choices. As the movie begins, he sees the start of a new year as a chance to make some changes in his life, promising to stay faithful to Sophina, (Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Tatiana, (Ariana Neal), and to stop selling weed.

As the day progresses, with Oscar dropping off his daughter at daycare and his girlfriend at her job, we learn it's his mother's birthday, (she's played by Octavia Spencer, in a nice post-Oscar performance), and a party is planned for the evening. We also learn he's recently been fired from his job at a grocery store, for being consistently late. When he asks to get his job back, we also see the a bubbling anger beneath the friendly demeanor we've been witness to thus far.

Later in the day, we see Oscar continuing to wrestle with his promised resolutions. We also see a flashback to a stint he did in prison, for a crime that isn't defined.

Over the course of the film, we witness certain ham-fisted events. There's a completely gratuitous scene involving a dog; Oscar meets and helps a woman at the grocery store, who ends up being on the same BART train later that night; his daughter tells him she's afraid of gunshots in the neighborhood; his mother tells him to take BART instead of driving, as it will be safer.

I don't know if any or all of these events did happen on that day. I find it hard to believe they all did, but regardless, the way the film handles them is just way too melodramatic and fortuitous. If these events were real, they certainly aren't made to feel real.

Fruitvale Station isn't a bad movie. It's just an emotionally manipulative one. But, even with that said, I'd still say it's worth seeing, especially for local audiences. It's one of the rare Bay Area-set movies that really does feel like it knows the Bay Area, and gets it right. Even if there is way too liberal a use of the word "Frisco."

I will admit to crying, a LOT during the film's final moments. But I still felt like the movie was amping up the maudlin when the real life tragedy was enough.

And really, the story doesn't need any of that melodrama. Oscar's death is no more tragic because his mother suggested BART, or he was kind to a stranger who ended up witnessing his death, or he saw a dog get hurt.

His death would be just as tragic if he had spent the entire day in bed, only to be shot on BART later that night. His death is tragic because he didn't deserve to die that night, period.