Silver Screen: Fruitvale Station ****
Blockbuster season grows more perfunctory every summer. Mega-budgeted effects spectacles used to come around a few times a year, but now it seems that every other weekend from May to August begets some bank-busting behemoth. The result is a strange kind of malaise; being bored during a dim-witted thriller or a lousy Katherine Heigl comedy is one thing, but it’s a strange feeling to yawn and shrug through $150 million worth of flashing lights and Dolby Surround Sound thunder.
So far 2013 has begat more nine-figure flops than the entire calendar year 1993 had epic-scale action movies. In that first year of the Clinton presidency, you could have caught Jurassic Park, Last Action Hero, The Fugitive, and Tombstone, whereas this year alone has heard the collective thud of The Lone Ranger, White House Down, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., After Earth, and Jack the Giant Slayer. Who can blame people for passing on these movies-- each of which would have likely dominated its timeframes even a decade ago-- when audiences are already distracted with sequels for Star Trek, Die Hard, the Fast and the Furious, The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, and G.I. Joe as well as one D.C. and four Marvel superhero movies, a 3D Return to Oz, and the inexplicable action movie version of Hansel and Gretel? There is a blockbuster-saturation point.
A pair of small-scale movies playing right now offers a blissful reprieve from all the digitized destruction and green-screened heroism. Neither film has much in common with the other except that they’re both smartly written, well-acted movies that strive for emotional connection over visceral thrills.
Fruitvale Station is a richly textured, compelling day-in-the-life tale with a stunning conclusion all too familiar from the headlines. During the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Metro transit cops in Oakland shot and killed twenty-one-year-old Oscar Grant III while he lay prone on the floor of a train station. The shocking act of violence was caught on cell-phone video by passengers on the train Grant had just left, and that grainy, unsettling footage plays during the opening minutes of the movie like a premonition.
First-time feature writer and director Ryan Coogler then brings the action back twenty-four hours to show the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, played here in a subtle and stirring performance by the fantastic young actor Michael B. Jordan, best known as The Wire’s doomed Wallace. Jordan’s portrayal of Grant is as layered and complex as the movie’s largely unvarnished portrait of him.
When first we meet Oscar he’s fighting with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who castigates him again for catching him cheating weeks earlier. Oscar seems dedicated to Sophina, who raised their daughter alone during his last stint in jail, although we see how he might go astray later when he hits on a pretty girl (Ahna O’Reilly) shopping at the grocery store where he works. It’s a seemingly minor scene that deftly showcases the many sides of Oscar as he banters with a buddy, bickers with his boss, and engages in a bit of harmless flirtation. Jordan brilliantly shifts between interactions, demonstrating significant charm but also hinting at the frustration and sense of failure beneath his confident façade.
It’s heartbreaking when Oscar’s devoted mother (Octavia Spencer) convinces him to take the train rather than drive to San Francisco to see the Bay-area fireworks display with Sophina and his friends. She’s trying to keep him safe-- from the other drivers, and it’s implied from eager police patrolling the streets, as well as his own cloudy judgement-- and our grim awareness of what’s to come makes the moment devastating.
Fruitvale Station is much more than a countdown to a murder, though. This slice of urban life would be an intriguing chronicle of a troubled young man’s struggle to mature into adulthood and leave behind the legacy of his bad decisions. But the clock is ticking, and eventually fate or circumstance puts Oscar on that BART train back to Oakland, where a scuffle with a figure from his past leads to an altercation with police. A senior officer (Kevin Durand) sets the hostile tone for the interaction, but it’s a young rookie who makes what he claims to be the fateful error.
It’s all but impossible to watch Fruitvale Station in summer 2013 and not think about Trayvon Martin. The connections between the two young black men are more than superficial: Each had a troubled if mostly nonviolent history, and each was shot by an overzealous figure acting in the name of authority and community safety. Neither Martin nor Grant was a downy innocent or the perfect poster child for unchecked racism. In both cases their backstories and tragic ends remain muddied and in dispute. Simple conclusions are tough to come by, but the implications for society’s perceptions of young black men, and the consequences of unfettered gun culture, are grim.
The broader social implications simmer beneath the surface, but Coogler avoids making his movie explicitly political. Rather than make the sad true story a kind of cinematic metonymy for the context in which it exists, Coogler inverts the logic of the blockbuster and shrinks the story down to the size of a single life, interrupted.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.