I have some mixed feelings about Fruitvale Station. On one hand it’s a great story and definitely hits you emotionally, but on the other it’s almost trying too hard to do so, and all of the “documentary realism” type techniques weren’t really working for me. It’s definitely worth your time to watch, but I’m not quite convinced that it’s going to win all the awards come
February March. Of course awards aren’t the only things that matter; it’s still a pretty good film.
The film opens with real footage from when the real Oscar Grant was killed. This type of put the real footage at the beginning seems to be getting pretty popular lately, I remember it from Zero Dark Thirty as well. As with that case, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. In Fruitvale Station though, Coogler takes this another step and puts some documentary type footage at the end too, of Grant’s daughter, Tatiana, mourning his death. If that’s not manipulative, I don’t know what is. But then, you will say, isn’t the purpose of movies to get you to feel something? And yes that’s true, and yes, there is hardly a better way to do that than show something emotional that really happened exactly how it happened, but for some reason I am wary of this mixing of the two formats. If they wanted to show it as it really happened, why didn’t they do that for the whole film? I don’t know, but instead of feeling only very sad at the end because this poor girl was left fatherless, I felt very sad and also like the filmmakers wanted me to feel very sad. All I’m saying here is hide your manipulative ways a little bit, Coogler!
The film consists of the last day of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) life, which also happens to be New Year’s Eve and his mom’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday. The image of Oscar that the film paints is of a screw up who’s basically a nice guy, and trying to turn his life around. It’s hard to believe that it would have happened as neatly as it did here. For example, at one point he’s goes to sell some guy drugs but then dumps them instead, and either on the way to or from this event, he briefly makes friends with a dog which is run over right afterward. Isn’t he a nice guy now, he made friends with a dog! Look everyone! He tried to save this poor defenseless dog! As well as the fact that its one of the many examples of foreshadowing, all of which work to varying degrees of emotional effectiveness. The dog getting run over bit was not working on me, sorry.
There are two more prominent examples of foreshadowing which I think work a lot better than the dog one. One is when his mother makes him take the train into San Francisco for New Year’s Eve celebrations, and another is when his daughter (Ariana Neal) mistakes the fireworks for gunshots and worries about her father’s safety. That one is obviously the biggest one of the bunch, and it’s just as manipulative to use a kid instead of a dog but this kid was just so dark cute that for some reason, it actually got to me even though I recognized what Coogler was up to, because you know, it was pretty obvious.
The main reason that the emotional bits of the film do work is because of the performances, which are generally pretty great. Everyone works really great together and knows how to get under your skin, even if the script they have is so obvious about it. Though Jordan seems to be getting all of the buzz on this one, I do have to say that the most effective part of the film for me was after he was dead. His mother, girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and friends were all grieving and it was some pretty powerful stuff. So that left me giving Diaz and Spencer most of the credit, though surely I would not have been able to understand what they are going through without seeing their previous interactions with Oscar. Bottom line: the all of the performances are really great and they’re the main reason to see the film.
That brings me to my next point, which had me wondering if going through Oscar’s last day like they did in the film was really the best way to go. It took a while for me to get into the film; I’m not gonna lie. It showed Oscar going about his daily business for a while and it was really not that exciting. It wasn’t until the flashback with Oscar’s mom visiting him in prison that I got invested in the story. If they just made the ending into a short film I almost feel like it would have been more emotional because it would have been concentrated over a short amount of time.
The biggest complaint I have about the film is the way it looks. I don’t know if somebody in the theater screwed up or if it was actually shot this way, but nevertheless the thing looked terrible. It was very grainy, and when I see a movie I actually want to be able to see it. If Coogler was trying to capture the “real” feeling of videos shot on cell phones from 2009, then he succeeded. However, instead of me bringing me into the story more, it actually took me out of it. Not being able to tell what’s going on is fine in the confusing moments surrounding Oscar’s death, but being distracted by grainyness is just annoying for the majority of the film.
So, I have my fair share of issues with Fruitvale Station, but all in all I came out of it liking it. The performances are really the main reason for this; I cannot emphasize this enough. The direction and writing left a little to be desired, but nevertheless the film is still pretty good.