With the name Trayvon Martin on everyone’s lips, along comes a movie that may be the timeliest film of the year. “Fruitvale Station,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, tells the true story of Oscar Grant III (“Friday Night Light’s” star Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old who was shot in cold blood at in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale subway stop on New Year’s Day, 2009.
The movie begins, film noir like, with the death of the main character. Except it’s not a character, it is grainy cell phone footage of the real Grant being shot to death. It’s a jarring way to begin the film, particularly given the events that follow.
Grant woke up on December 31, 2008 filled with a sense of purpose.
The ex-convict saw the New Year as a new start, a chance to be a better person to the three women in his life, mother (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and four year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
The movie counts down his final hours and attempts to affect change in his life, culminating with a tragic showdown with BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department) officers after midnight on the first day of the year.
“Fruitvale Station” is a quiet movie, one that builds in intensity through a series of scenes detailing how being a better man is harder than Oscar thought it would be. “I thought I could start over fresh,” he says, “but it ain’t working out.”
Despite the film’s gritty style—hand held cameras, down and dirty language—the character of Oscar is portrayed in a positive light. He’s a flawed man trying to reform himself, and if the movie has a failing it’s in its treatment of the lead character.
Finely portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, Oscar is the key to the film’s success or failure, but it occasionally feels that director Ryan Coogler doesn’t trust the story or the character to win over the audience. He over compensates, manipulating situations for maximum emotional effect. A scene in which Tatiana tells her dad she doesn’t want him to go out that night, that’s she’s scared he’ll get shot, for instance, feels heavy handed and unnecessary.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that “Fruitvale Station” isn’t a documentary. Coogler has shaped the movie for maximum heartrending effect, and by the time the devastating last half hour plays out it’s hard to imagine any other movie this year packing such a emotional wallop.