At its most basic, “Fruitvale Station” is about a man being shot to death.
But it isn’t a whodunit. Based on tragic real-life events in 2009, when unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a cop at Oakland, Calif.’s Fruitvale train station, it begins with grainy cellphone footage of the actual killing.
It then tracks back in time to what led up to that horrible encounter and, even though we know where this dark road travels, the remarkable “Fruitvale Station” still manages to be both sorrowful and suspenseful while also celebrating a life only half-lived. What’s even more amazing is that this film — the Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance and one of the winners in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes — is director-writer Ryan Coogler’s first feature.
Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights”) turns in a riveting, star-making performance as Oscar Grant, a somewhat aimless young black man with a girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), a young daughter (Ariana Neal) and few prospects. He has lost his job at a grocery store for being late too often, he’s got a record and he’s very much tempted to go back to hustling dope.
Despite all that, Oscar isn’t a bad guy deep down. He enjoys fatherhood and being a son — much of the film is devoted to him getting ready to celebrate the birthday of his mom (Octavia Spencer, “The Help”). But as events move relentlessly toward the foregone conclusion, Oscar finds himself in a situation spiraling hopelessly out of his control.
Coogler, who shot the film with a sense of swagger that belies his age of 27, doesn’t paint Oscar as a saint but just as a guy who has made bad choices in his life. Coogler has admitted to taking liberties with the truth — a scene with a dog apparently was totally invented for the film — and those who take the rookie policeman’s side in the ongoing controversy about what happened that night might see it as one-sided and manipulative. We certainly don’t get to know the cops beyond their show of brute force.
Still, especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and controversy, “Fruitvale Station” is a compelling portrait of a life ended too soon.