Fruitvale Station Review: A Powerful Story That, Like the Movie, Is Too Good To Be True
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Fruitvale Station Is A Powerful Story That, Like the Movie, Is Too Good To Be True

By Caspar Salmon | Film Reviews | July 15, 2013 | Comments ()


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.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • francisco

    really interesting review. i think you might be misinterpreting the portrayal a bit... or maybe i am! i never thought they portrayed him as a saint. when i watched him in the grocery store helping that girl, it never occurred to me that he was just being helpful. it really felt like he was being a bit sleazy, trying to charm her with his buddy as a wingman. which made me bristle a little bit, all COME ON, OSCAR, YOU JUST GOT IN TROUBLE WITH YOUR GIRLFRIEND ABOUT THIS. between that and his threat against the store manager, that entire scene made him seem much more flawed than saintly.

    so for me, the good and bad of this man felt very naturally intertwined, and a lot less ham-fisted. but it's begging the question, to be sure; if my read is wrong with scenes like that, then the whole movie ends up being much clunkier.

  • Artemis

    Having now seen the movie, I have such strong disagreement with this review. For starters, 90% of what is portrayed in the movie is in fact true to life -- the dog scene (which I agree was unnecessary) was invented, but the rest of it was reconstructed from discussions with Grant's family and friends and from news stories. The last things he says to his daughter, the fact that it was his mother's birthday and he brought over crabs for the party, that his mother urged him to take the train that night--all true. Even the encounter with the woman in the grocery store is apparently real, though it didn't happen that day.

    But more important, I vehemently disagree that the film made him out to be some kind of saint. As the review notes, there are multiple scenes in which he gets angry and even physically aggressive; one flashback scene involving his mom is absolutely gut-wrenching and shows a pretty nasty side of him. He's also shown as having been justifiably fired from his job and has been cheating on his girlfriend (and mother of his child). The fact that these scenes are interspersed with those of him being friendly and funny and having a winning smile is exactly the point -- you can be a charming and charismatic and still have a darker side. You can be a good son and a devoted father and still have a criminal record and be struggling to turn your life around. And you can get into a fight on the train and mouth off to an asshole cop and still be a human being who is loved and who doesn't deserve to die.

    I don't really understand what people who talk about this movie "idealizing" Grant wanted--should it have ignored the good parts and just shown the bad? He spent most of that day with his family, should that have been cut down in favor of invented scenes of him selling drugs? The movie made him out to be a truly extraordinary person only in the way that we all are--for the good parts we all have, for our contradictions, for our desire to be the best version of ourselves. In other words, for our humanity.

  • Naye

    Honestly, the Grant portrayed on the film sounds just like my ex. Despite being the surliest person I've ever had to deal with, people are drawn to him somehow. He has many, many, more acquaintances than I ever had being a naturally nice person. Iv'e seen him make friends standing outside smoking a cigarette. I've been cussed out for narrowly missing the dead body of a squirrel (he likes animals). He's very quick tempered, but he always holds the door open for old ladies, and will help someone who looks like they are struggling with something without hesitation, and is always there for the friends he does manage to keep. And our daughter is absolutely taken by him, he could play with her for hours. But...he's an asshole. Moody, answers questions when he wants to, or totally ignores them, and can be downright disrespectful if things don't go his way. I haven't seen the movie, but in life sometimes really, really, good people have very bad sides, and sometimes very very bad people, have a winning smile.

  • Rm

    Exactly. Perfectly articulated- thank you. I never knew how to express my relationship but you hit the nail on the head.

  • guest

    the man portrayed in this film is NOT the real oscar grant
    oscar grant was a two bit thug - a felon drug dealer out on parole
    not the saint they try to turn him into

  • Naye

    I would just like to say that two-bits thugs, also have hearts. It's lots of two-bit thugs writing our laws that will never see the inside of a prison.

  • francisco

    exactly. furthermore, nobody deserves to get shot in the back while lying down in handcuffs, be they a saint or a two-bit thug.

  • Overindulged

    Thank you for this review! I saw it at Sundance and agree absolutely with your points. I couldn't believe that it won both prizes when there were so many better things on offer. Why do you think it won? My friend and I are Australian and basically decided that it might be American sentimentalism.

  • e jerry powell

    You're probably on to something, but I would be more likely to point towards, well, unfortunately...

    Liberal guilt.

    That won't make it a bad film, but it can bend broader reaction to the film into the direction of excessive overpraising because of the film's theme, brushing aside fundamental filmmaking problems.

  • Lovely review, Caspar--and I appreciate your points of detraction. I'm definitely going to see it.

  • anon

    I just can't on this movie. As a resident of Oakland, a frequent patron of Fruitvale, as someone who sat and watched every minute of the sh**storm that followed Grant's killing, I just don't think I can handle this one.

    I was not there when it happened, but can't help but feel that the cop that did the shooting was demonized while the person who was shot was glorified in the media. I'm not saying the shooting was forgivable or justified, but it really seemed by all accounts that it really was an accident, a stressed out cop grabbing the wrong weapon, who was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter rather than murder.

    I'm just really torn and probably in the minority on this one. I don't know how the film deals with it, so I'm making assumptions here. If his shooting was treated as anything more than a horrible accident, I'm just not sure I can watch this one.

  • Artemis

    Whether the cop intended to shoot him or not (I lean toward thinking he did not, but we can't really know), Oscar Grant's death was more than a horrible accident. It was the kind of accident that overwhelmingly happens to young black men. It was the kind of accident that overwhelmingly results in acquittals or extremely short prison sentences (Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to 2 years for killing Grant). It was the kind of accident that was both caused by and food for the cycle of racist assumptions about black men and racial profiling of the same.

    And if you think that Grant was glorified in the media, I think we spend our time with very different media sources. I saw outrage that he was killed when he did absolutely nothing that warranted being shot in the back, and I saw outrage that the person who killed him--whether legitimately accidentally or otherwise--received what amounted to a slap on the wrist. I saw his family and friends, and people who witnessed the shooting, being sad and outraged, and I saw anger over a system in which this keeps fucking happening to young black men. I also saw an enormous outpouring of horrifically racist crap from both randoms on the internet and "news" outlets. But I saw nothing at all that "glorified" him in even the most sympathetic accounts. Because you don't need to be a saint to not deserve what happened to Oscar Grant.

  • So I feel like you're saying that we should go see it for the acting, just be aware that we may be disappointed in the actual storytelling.

    I can get with that.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Your review was a joy to read.

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