Fruitvale Station Is A Powerful Story That, Like the Movie, Is Too Good To Be True
Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, and like another promising debut by a Sundance graduate — Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild — has been selected to run in a sidebar category here at Cannes. There is clearly a lot of anticipation, not to say hoohah, surrounding the film. Perhaps it’s the rabid expectations being heaped onto the film that made it feel such a disappointment, but I don’t think so. Beyond the elements that make it engaging and propulsive, Fruitvale sometimes feels both overworked and undercooked in the crucial areas of writing and film direction.
The film tells the true story of Oscar Julius Grant — a man who, in 2009, was shot by policemen in Oakland, California, as he came home with friends and his girlfriend after celebrating the new year. In the 24 hours leading up to these events, we see Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) going about his business of trying to go straight for his young daughter, girlfriend and mother, following time in prison and a past life as a dealer.
There is a lot to recommend the film in some bold and interesting early scenes: it begins with a fine, realistic scene involving Grant and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) arguing in bed: it articulates very well the dynamic between the two of them, between exasperation and tenderness, and lays out the film’s themes of family and money, and how to be a good person. In our introduction to Oscar, he is a lively, combative presence with great reserves of charisma: he speaks fast, he is off-the-cuff and bright. A few more scenes — including a lovely breakfast scene with the couple’s daughter the next day — add a few more assured brushstrokes to this picture . We gradually get a sense of the type of man Oscar is, through interactions with pretty much everyone he knows, in text messages he sends to everyone, phone calls, and encounters with strangers: the sense is of a conflicted, kind and generous man.
Here I have to address the main problem the film has, which is to do with the way it portrays Oscar Grant. This is in no way the fault of Michael B. Jordan, who turns in a natural, layered and altogether winning performance. But there really is a difficulty in the presentation of the main character, who increasingly feels overwritten and implausible as the portrait builds. Here he is texting his mother happy birthday, and lending money to his sister, and sneaking a little treat to his adoring daughter behind her mother’s back with a wink and a smile, and here he is helping out a total stranger — these scenes accrue in a heavy-handed way, each resoundingly landing its message that here is a truly exceptional being who would apparently be flawless were it not for his criminal conviction. The film does present other sides to him — a tendency to violence and anger, namely, in a clunkily framed flashback scene to his prison days — but these are always leavened by a return to Grant’s true goodness, as we see him flash another white grin and winsome “you’re welcome” at yet another grateful stranger benefiting from his selfless assistance. It begins to grate, and is further disappointing in that, dealing as it does with a true story, it lends the film a hagiographic tone that is at odds with its realistic stylings.
Throughout all this, Jordan works like a man possessed to give meat and life to his character: his chemistry with all of his co-stars is joyous to behold. He possesses both charisma and depth, and his line readings are all on point. He is nearly matched by Octavia Spencer, lending real gravitas to the film in her role as Oscar’s mother: their rapport is well shown, despite some slightly oily family scenes. In one over-written confrontation scene in particular, Spencer is quietly commanding, channeling all of her character’s love and despair for her son while Jordan flits sharply between his two poles, heartwarming and angry: they both feed off each other so well, reacting and building their characters, mirroring each other’s behaviour.
There are clichés in the script, beyond the over-egging of Grant’s character. Grant will often stay silent after he has been asked a question, or dramatically change subject, from which we have to infer that he has been deeply affected: this is a ploy used several times. There are platitudes, and clumsily constructed scenes, such as Grant’s implausible bonding with a fellow ex-crim now turned good, in under one minute while they both wait outside a shop for their girlfriends. There is a scene involving Grant and a dog, towards the beginning, that is encumbered with a metric tonne of symbolism and sledgehammer portentousness: remember this for later, Ryan Coogler seems to be breathing hotly into the spectator’s ear. All of this righteousness and clumsy construction galls all the more since in a few beautiful scenes we have observed how deft and articulate Coogler can be.
Sadly, the clichés in the writing are sometimes mirrored in unfortunate directing choices — there is a hideous and unnecessary slow-motion sequence and a soundless flashback sequence at a time of great pathos: both have become stereotypical devices of late and they have a cloying effect here. Again, as with the writing, these weaknesses are only more of a pity since in many other ways the film is vibrant, full of energy and movement, and showing a certain amount of style: there are some good close-ups, nice fixed shots, a whole bag of tricks that make this feel lively and coherent were it not for the odd lapse.
The film pursues its story to the end that had always been on the cards. The last scenes do have a dramatic wallop to them, and the cast deal with the tragic coda very well, particularly Spencer. The film does not know how to end, however, and resorts to my least favourite gimmick in cinema: it highlights during the credits the truth of the story it is telling, with some real-life footage of Grant’s family. This is all very well in that the film is openly militant about obtaining redress for Grant, but I feel it is also a narrative laziness and bordering on the emotionally manipulative.
One wants to cut the movie a little slack: it is, despite my reservations about it, a very promising debut for its director, and provides a stand-out performance for its star — but there are also, in my opinion, too many reasons to feel disappointed, too many missed opportunities to make this film a great one.