Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Day in the Life: FRUITVALE STATION


Fruitvale Station is named for the train station in Oakland, California where an unarmed 22-year-old African American man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by a transit policeman on January 1, 2009. This could easily have been a film of martyrdom, a single-minded story of how a wholly good person was gunned down by societal forces that to this day allow certain members of our society to view certain groups as somehow inherently suspicious, even dangerous, for arbitrary reasons. But 27-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler in his most promising feature film debut has instead smartly made this a story about life in all its complexity and promise. The inherent and real societal problems illuminated by this tragic story shine all the more clearly by both not forcing the details of Oscar’s life to fit simplistic politically convenient stereotypes and reducing the violent act itself to a small part of the overall narrative. This is not a film that looks for tears only by showing the details of a wrongful death, but by showing the details of the life that was cut short.

After chunky, shaky cell phone footage, a partially abstracted scene of impending doom that sets an ominous mood, the film moves backwards to its real focus, starting the morning of December 31, 2008. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) starts his day with his girlfriend (Melanie Diaz) and their extremely cute four-year-old daughter (Ariana Neal). It’s a day of transitions. A new year is nearly here, the world poised to change in superficial ways, while staying all too the same in all the ways that matter. We follow Oscar around town as he makes preparations for the evening’s celebrations, which will culminate in catching the train into San Francisco for New Year’s fireworks, but start with a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). He meets friends, runs errands, and tries to talk the manager at the grocery store into rehiring him. He gets gas, cradles a stray dog, and offers advice to a friendly lady at the deli counter. It’s an ordinary day, albeit one positioned perfectly for contemplation of the future.

This slice-of-life film simply presents a moment of time. The action on screen could be the day-to-day life of a great many people. What makes it important and notable is not the way this day will end. It’s important for no reason other than the core humanity on display. Oscar is not a perfect person. (Who is?) Jordan allows his performance a staggering amount of unshowy range, shifting between pride and love, stubbornness and compassion. In his interactions with friends and family, we see a young man with an identity still in flux. He’s dependable, ambitious, compassionate, and searching. He contains multitudes. He’s pulling his life back together after a brief stay in prison, but he’s not simply an ex-convict. He’s a loving boyfriend, father, son, and brother. But he’s not simply a one-note family man. He’s an adaptable striver, able to fit into many situations with a sense of ease. He’s not just an everyman. He’s this man.

This is a performance and a film that draws upon cinema’s capacity for empathy, for giving us deep insight into a life that’s not our own. It’s a film filled with countless little details of performances that resonate through nothing more than their ordinariness. It’s a film of moments, warm and natural: a birthday party, a car ride, a soft romantic interlude, a fatherly reassurance, a tense exchange. These and more feel merely normal with an unforced ease. Brief moments of foreshadowing might push too hard, but Coogler’s script is admirably loose in moments that feel spontaneous. His camera, often reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ in its sense of precise connection to the performances and found poetry of location shooting, follows his actors closely, tenderly, observing without judgment, without generalization, and without insistence. There’s only humanity here. That’s what takes center stage in this narrative, despite the knowledge that a tragic turn of events draws nearer.

Because we’ve come to know these characters, the final moments play out not with overwhelming horror, but a sense of stunned disbelief. It’s here that it is easiest to see Coogler’s remarkable restraint and emotional precision. The film is tender and compassionate to all involved. Look at Spencer’s face in the hospital as she’s confronted with the sad news, stunned and raw. The shot feels long and devastating. Earlier at the station, look at the face of the officer (Chad Michael Murray) as he realizes what just happened, an expression of ambiguous shock. The shot is quick, yet important to the film’s observant style. Most haunting is a shot of Diaz and Neal during a long pregnant pause in the final scene, the occasion to cut to credits before we hear a character’s reply.

This is a film that wisely stops unresolved. How can there possibly be a satisfying resolution here? There are no easy answers and it is to Coogler’s credit that he doesn’t let the film reach for closure it can’t find or conclusions it can’t draw. But how did we get here, from such a promising young man’s daily life to its sudden, shocking end? Coogler’s calm filmmaking takes the film to a place more lingeringly emotional and more productively complex than overt anger or hagiography would have. Injustice is obvious. How we’re to feel about this is wisely complicated by the film instead of simplified and pre-digested. It’s a powerful drama, forceful and accomplished, with plenty to consider well after the credits have rolled. This story of a death is filled with so much heartbreaking life. The final moments are a tragedy not just for what happened, but also for what was taken away.

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